Scout

Interim Incursion 43-07 (Tristan)

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The entrance to the staff elevator was set up against the wall a couple feet from the regular one, only really hidden if you weren’t looking for it (and hadn’t just seen a creepy yarn-creature disappear into it a few seconds earlier).

Standing in the elevator with Scout, Sean, and Columbus after they’d pried the doors open, Tristan Moon bounced his foot anxiously while staring upward. “Top floor. Gotta get to the top floor. That’s where the bomb is.” He could see it perfectly in his mind, the memory of that Strings-creature’s thoughts crystal clear. As was the memory of just how terrible possessing it in the first place had been. It wasn’t like possessing a normal person. It was like being part of a hive. He’d nearly lost his mind and entire separate sense of self just in those brief seconds. It was an experience he never wanted to repeat, and shuddered now at the thought that the memory would always be a part of him.

But it saved Scout, so it was worth it. And if it helped them disable this bomb, it would be even more so. All they had to do was get to the thing before Strings set it off.

“It’s not moving,” Columbus blurted while hitting the elevator button a few more times. He grimaced, looking to Tristan. “Strings must’ve shut it down. I could try to get into it and turn the power back on, but–”

“Too long,” Tristan quickly agreed. “We’ll just have to get up the old fashioned way.” He wasn’t quite to the point of blind panic. From what he’d read in that… creature’s mind, even once it was armed, the bomb would still need time to gather energy before it actually exploded. They couldn’t exactly dawdle, but the explosion wasn’t going to happen any second.

Spending years helping Grandpa Nick and growing up on his ship had really helped with that whole ‘keeping calm when a bomb wasn’t literally seconds from exploding’ thing. Even if he tried not to think about that time too much at the moment since he knew it would be at least five years before he could have any contact with them. Consequences of time travel that had been thoroughly hammered into his head by Nicholas, Gaia, and more recently by Apollo and his mother. No matter how much he missed Nicholas Petan (or the other people who meant a lot to him, like Dexamene), he could not have any contact until their current time had caught up with the other man’s.

So for now, Tristan focused on dealing with the current problem, moving under the hatch in the elevator roof before looking up. It was pretty high, about nine feet up in this enormous elevator. Luckily, he could handle that. First, he touched the spell on his clothes that would send them into the pocket of the Seosten bodysuit that he wore underneath, not wanting to rip them. Then he let Bobbi-Bobbi off his arm, letting her sit in the corner of the elevator in snake mode for the moment.

Flashing the others a quick grin, the boy couldn’t help but note, “Let’s just hope that safety plaque over there isn’t lying about how much weight it can hold.”

Focusing briefly on his growth power then, Tristan made himself tall enough to reach up and push the hatch open. Then he reached down for Sean, picking the boy up before giving him a lift out of the hatch. He did the same for Scout, Columbus, Bobbi-Bobbi, and Vulcan before catching onto the edge, shrinking down to his normal height, and climbing out to join them.

Standing on the roof of the elevator, all four of them (plus the cyberforms) looked up. The shaft was long, with the top floor where they needed to get at least the equivalent of forty stories away.

“Why is this thing so big?” Columbus demanded with obvious exasperation. “The vaults are all below us, right? So what the hell is above us that takes up that much room?”

“Offices,” Tristan answered, remembering what he’d taken from that piece of Strings (that String?). “Security training rooms. Apartments for the permanent employees. I think a bowling alley too. Things like that. Even an on-site hospital. Oh, and generators for all the power they need. Electrical and magical.”

He paused then, before making a face. “Can we go? I sound way too much like Nessa right now. And Strings already has enough of a head start anyway. It’s gonna take time for them to get the bomb going, but not that much time.”

“I don’t think I can teleport that far,” Columbus murmured while staring up that way. “Especially not with all of you. I could try teleporting from floor to floor in those little elevator doorways, but that’s gonna wear me out pretty quick.”

“Nah,” Tristan replied, “I’ve got this one.” He moved to the other side of the lift, making sure to give the others as much room as possible before growing once more. That time he hit his full ten foot limit, which brought him within a few feet of the next floor. Close enough that, with brief hits from his boost, he could hop up and grab the elevator doorway, hauling himself onto it.

It wouldn’t have been hard to get up the elevator shaft normally. He could’ve done it as a child, scrambling up between the walls and cables. But with the added height and boost, it was even easier. He hopped from floor to floor, jumping to the side of the shaft, using the cable, or just clinging to the wall with his feet dug into small crevices. He climbed the elevator shaft in just a few short seconds, barely slowing to pay attention to what he was doing long enough to make sure there were no trap spells waiting at various stops.

Then his head hit an invisible forcefield just as he was starting to make one of the last jumps, and Tristan yelped. Nearly losing his grip, the boy windmilled before grabbing a nearby wall to catch himself. Grimacing, he looked up. Sure enough, the powerful shield hummed a little. He was three floors from the top.

With a sigh, he looked back. This was going to have to do. Settling himself against the nearest elevator doorway, the boy reached out for the cable and began to haul back on it. Bit by bit, he hauled the elevator with his friends on it up to meet him.

The bomb. Every bit of him itched to go after that bomb. But Grandpa Nick had hammered it so many times into his head to not run off by himself in situations like this. And there had been more than a few involving bombs, some of which were much closer to going off than this one was.

He knew they had time. He’d seen it in that String’s… brain, such as it was. But even telling himself that the bomb would need at least a few minutes to fully prep and deploy once Strings got to it didn’t really help that much. It was a bomb, they had to get to it now. Now. Holding himself back, forcing himself to be calm and smart about things, it wasn’t easy.

“What happened?” Scout asked him as soon as he’d hauled the elevator up to his level. She was standing with Bobbi-Bobbi wrapped around her waist, the snake’s head resting on her shoulder as both stared at him. She glanced upward at the several floors-worth of shaft yet to go.

“Forcefield,” he replied, “gotta find another way up.” With that, he shrank back to his normal size, before turning to face the closed elevator doorway leading to the corridor beyond. “Bobs?”

His snake unwrapped itself from Scout, lunging to him while he held his arm out for her. As soon as the cyberform was reattached to him, Tristan shifted her from cannon-mode to blade-mode and shoved the end through the tiny crack in the doors, using that to pry them open before pushing the rest of the way.

The others joined him, stepping off the elevator roof and into the corridor. The place was deserted. It looked like the lobby of some office building, complete with an empty receptionist’s desk ahead of them. There were signs on the wall about how to get to each office through the three different corridors (one to either side and one straight ahead past the desk), and even a flyer advertising some kind of staff basketball tournament.

Quickly scanning all of the signs, Tristan pointed. “Stairs. There, that way!” Without another word, he started running to the left, trusting the others to follow.

“How much time do we have?!” Sean called as he ran alongside Tristan, with Vulcan a few feet ahead. “And why does a bomb have a time delay before it goes off anyway?”

“It’s the only way they could do it,” Tristan replied without breaking stride. “The bomb needs a lot of power to break through the whole building with its defenses and take out everything below us. But if they had it just sitting there with all that power, Heretics who weren’t on their side would’ve noticed. They would’ve sensed it. So they had to leave it and let the thing charge up when the time came. Besides,” he added, “they figured if the bomb took a few minutes to charge up, they could nail Avalon and whoever was with her on their way out of the vault. You know, destroy the spell after she brought it out for them.”

“Two birds, one bomb, got it,” Columbus put in from behind him. “So we just have to get to it before it finishes charging up.”

Nodding her agreement, Scout added, “What if it’s about to go off?”

“It can’t be,” Tristan informed her and the others, “we’d feel it. Believe me, we’ll know when the bomb hits its half-charged point.”

He started to elaborate on that, only to stop as they reached the door leading into the stairwell. Without pausing, he lashed out to kick the door open, passing right through it. Unfortunately, a familiar hum brought him up short. Cursing, he lashed out to punch the forcefield blocking the way on the stairs. “Damn it!”

He looked toward Scout then. “Can you use your scope-portals to find the shield generator and destroy it?” Then his eyes flicked over to Columbus. “Or, or can you teleport through it?” He was mentally flailing, every other thought he had some version of wishing that Vanessa was there. She was smarter. She could have figured this out.

Scout’s head shook, even as she lowered her rifle. Her voice was soft. “Scope can’t go through.”

“Neither can I,” Columbus reluctantly muttered. “It’s protected against teleportation.”

“Can we just cut up through the ceiling?” Sean quickly put in, staring upward while shifting Vulcan into his minigun form.

Tristan’s head shook. “It’s all made out of starship grade metal. Trust me, Vanessa made m–starship grade metal!” He interrupted himself to repeat those words, eyes widening.

“Tristan?” Scout prompted as he went silent for a second, mind racing. “Are–”

He interrupted her that time. “Engraver! I need a–” Fumbling in his pockets, he finally came out with a field-engraver, promptly shifting himself up to a tall enough height to reach the ceiling even as he began frantically drawing a rune there. Too slow, it was too slow! He had to be faster. But he also had to get it right. It had to be just right. And he was too focused to explain anything. Thankfully, the others didn’t ask. They just waited while he drew the spell, planting power in it at the appropriate times.

Time. How much time did they have? Not enough. Faster. Remember faster. Draw faster. Work faster. Tristan scrambled, almost messing up the spell, which would have been the end of… everything. But at the last instant, he caught himself and adjusted the swirl of the line he was drawing. Just a little more. Do it right. He had to do it right the first time.

Finally, he tapped a hand against the completed rune, shoving the last of the power into it before dropping back to his normal height. “Please, please, please…”

It worked. The rune briefly glowed with a pale red light, before tiny darts of energy shot out of it to form a circle about four inches across. There was a brief high pitched sound like an electrical saw, before a small hole abruptly appeared in that space where the circle had been.

“Columbus!” Tristan blurted, “now, now, you can get through that, right?!”

With a nod, the other boy caught hold of everyone, pulling them in and snapping, “Hold on.” He stared up through that hole to the next floor up, and quickly transported them. Then they were through. They were on the next floor, in a hallway just outside what turned out to be the gymnasium.

Without wasting a second, Tristan was already moving for the stairwell ahead of them. He didn’t say anything to the others. There was no need, they were right behind him.

“What did you do?” Sean quickly asked once they hit the stairwell. “How did you do that? Did Vanessa-”

“Not Vanessa,” Tristan started before cutting himself off. Reaching ahead of himself on the stairs, he muttered a prayer… and was rewarded with no forcefield. They were already past it, and the bad guys hadn’t put one on every level. Pumping his fist briefly, the boy started to race up the stairs three at a time while continuing to explain. “Grandpa Nick! They use bigger versions of that spell during battles in space to transfer metal from these big blocks they have in order to patch holes or weak points in the hull. I just reversed it and sent metal from that little spot to other parts of the ceiling. It would’ve taken longer to make something big enough for all of us to get through, but since all you needed was a clear view to teleport through…”

By the time he finished giving that brief explanation, they were at the top floor. The door was locked, but Tristan was completely done with letting things delay them. He simply shifted Bobbi-Bobbi back to her cannon form, pointed, and blew the door open.

They emerged onto the top floor, an area for executive offices and the suites for the bank’s leadership and owners. It looked like a semicircle with half a dozen open doors spaced evenly along either side of a much larger set of doors that were straight across from the stairwell and elevator. The smaller doors led to vice-presidential areas, while the big ones right in the middle marked the entrance to the bank owner’s private home and personal office.

“Through there,” Tristan announced, moving for those doors. “They’ve got the bomb in the owner’s private quarters, it was the only way to make sure no one found it before they were ready.”

Just as they reached the doors, the group suddenly felt a heavy rumble go through the floor around them. It only lasted for a second, but all of their eyes widened as they looked to each other.

“It’s half-way through powering up,” Tristan snapped. “Which means we’ve got three minutes. Three minutes before it goes.” Even as he spoke, the boy was already racing for the doors. These too were locked, and resisted two quick shots from Bobbi-Bobbi. “Fuck!”

Scout’s hand caught his arm then, as the girl unslung her rifle with the other hand. “Together,” she muttered.

The others were already moving to do the same. Columbus put his hand to his goggles to move them up to full power, while Sean set Vulcan down to let the cyberform shoot on his own, taking VJ in his rifle form to add just a little more firepower. Together, they took aim for the middle of the doors, where they joined. Tristan counted down from three, all while hearing the inevitable clock of that bomb counting down each precious second.

They fired together, a sudden deafening cacophony of violent gunfire and lasers that blew the doors in, leaving a smoldering hole where they had been. Alarms finally started blaring, but none of them cared. They had to get to the bomb, now!

Two and a half minutes. Tristan’s internal clock was telling him that was how much time was left, even as they raced through the broken doors and he led the way in a dead sprint. Could they make it to the bomb in two and a half minutes?

They had to. It wasn’t a question. They would make it because there was no other choice. The Seosten Empire was not going to win this. Period, end of story.

Paying no attention to the lavish penthouse they were racing through, Tristan and the others ran straight for the back room, where the generator was. That would give the bomb its initial oomph, which it had just spent the past several minutes charging up into the devastating, skyscraper-demolishing explosion that it was about to trigger.

Step by step, they passed other rooms in a blur. One and a half minutes left. One minute, fifteen seconds.

At exactly one minute according to Tristan’s internal clock, they reached the room in question. It should have been a simply utility room with a couple generators and temperature regulators.

Should have been. The Seosten had… changed it. As the group raced into the room, they found it much larger. Football field-size, in fact. At the far end lay the bomb they were looking for, a device that looked like a dark blue cylinder pulsing with energy while surrounded by coils of metal and a complicated computer system. With every passing second, the cylinder was pulsing faster and brighter.

And Strings was there. Standing just in front of them, the hive-minded creature seemed to bounce from foot to foot, waving oversized hands. “Just in time,” they called. “Just in time to boom.”

“I got this,” Columbus snapped, catching hold of Tristan. He focused, then stopped. “… can’t teleport. Something’s blocking it. Something–”

“No cheating!” Strings interrupted. “No more cheating. Just stand there and be blown sky high like good children!” As they spoke, as if to add emphasis to the words, the hive-creature hit a button on a remote they held in one hand. Instantly, the full one hundred yards behind them leading to the bomb was taken up by hundreds of crisscrossing lasers. Some stationary, some mobile. It was a maze of deadly light. And Columbus couldn’t teleport through it.

Thirty seconds.

“Keep them busy!” Tristan snapped. He was already dropping Bobbi-Bobbi, leaving the snake behind as he ran straight for the lasers.

Behind him, his cyberform along with everyone else all opened up on Strings, driving the creatures to throw themselves out of the way, just as Tristan go close enough to leap past them. A half-dozen strings raced out toward him, but he dropped his size down to being a foot-tall, letting all of them miss before returning to his normal size.

Columbus and the others had Strings then, keeping the creatures occupied. Which just left the lasers, and the distance. Twenty seconds and a football field worth of deadly beams of light.

The record for the hundred yard dash among humans was just under ten seconds. And they didn’t have to deal with a shitload of lasers blocking their path.

But they also didn’t have Tristan’s boost, so he was going to call it even.

Kicking that on, the boy felt a rush of power and speed run through his entire body. He tore across the open space toward the bomb. Every move he made was instinctive, trusting his body to know how to avoid the lasers. They came from every direction, forcing him to dive, leap, spin, roll, and lunge to avoid them. At one point, he threw himself through a tiny square of open space between three crisscrossing beams, only able to make it through by shrinking himself down briefly.

But through it all, he kept moving. He kept running for the bomb.

Fifteen seconds.

Ten seconds.

Five seconds.

Lunging through the last row of lasers, Tristan’s hand slapped for the spellwork lined along one side of the bomb. He could feel the power in the thing rumbling through the floor and making his teeth rattle.

Four seconds.

Finding the right spot, he shoved his fingers into the appropriate spots and quickly began blurting the cancel code that he’d taken from Strings.

Three seconds.

The code was out, the system waiting for verification, which he snapped hurriedly.

Two seconds.

One second.

It stopped. The bright pulsing blue light suddenly went dim, and the bomb powered down.

Half-collapsing against the device, Tristan only belatedly remembered Strings. He quickly spun that way, finding the lasers shut down as well. Scout and the others were there, about halfway to him, while Strings was glowering, vibrating with anger. “Bad, bad, bad!” they snapped, quivering furiously. “Master will not be glad for this. Master will be very angry. Master-”

In mid-sentence, another figure suddenly appeared beside Strings before falling to the ground. It was a Seosten, heavily injured. His head was bald (and covered with blood along with his clothes), and he had a snake tattoo.

“Master!” Strings blurted, reaching for the gravely injured Seosten. The man, in turn, used what looked like the last of his strength to grab onto his extended hand, before disappearing into one of the String-creatures.

Tristan had already pushed himself back up and took several quick steps to join the others. Bobbi-Bobbi wound her way over his arm to resume her place, as he and the rest braced themselves.

But Strings apparently had no interest in fighting. Spitting a curse at them and a promise to make them pay for hurting Master, they disappeared.

“Is… is that it?” Sean demanded, staring at the spot where the creatures had been. “They just ran away?”

“Don’t trust it,” Columbus snapped. “They might come back.”

Tristan nodded. “He’s right. We wait here and guard the bomb, make sure Strings or… anybody else doesn’t double back to turn it on again. We’ll keep it safe.

“And hope Avalon gets into that vault soon.”

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Interim Incursion 43-05 (Scout)

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At least Scout knew what power she had picked up from the Seosten woman in the other building. As the swarm of the zombies made their way across the room toward the small group and the spell behind them, Scout kept trying to shoot faster to keep up with all the targets that presented themselves. Then, as if she had flipped a switch, she could suddenly think, move, and react much faster. It was like she had been thrown into fast forward, able to aim a shot, fire, aim another shot, fire, aim a third shot, and fire that as well before she normally would have finished aiming the first one.

She could only keep it going for a brief time, but in that time, she took down fifteen zombies with precise head shots. It was like that video game that Shiori had been showing her where you could use the occasional turbo boost to throw the world into slow-motion and auto-aim at your targets.

But it wasn’t enough. The zombies kept coming. They poured through every vault door, and immediately joined the horde in rushing for the spell that was blocking communication with the outside world. Even with Columbus, Sean, Tristan, and Professor Tangle adding their own firepower, there seemed to be no end to the creatures. They were killing them, but the zombies didn’t let up. More and more kept appearing, dozens at a time, even as they were mowed down just as quickly.

Beside her, Tristan took aim at a large clump of the creatures with his cannon, charged up a powerful shot, and let loose with it. The blast bowled through them and more beyond. But it was no more effective than anything else had been at actually stopping more from appearing.

Sean and the two Vulcans were laying down a dizzying hurricane of suppressive fire together. Sweeping their firing arc from one side of the room to the other constantly, they were doing the most to keep the flood of zombies from overwhelming everyone. Columbus’s goggle-blasts and Tristan’s cannon blew through the larger groups, and Scout picked off the sneaky lone figures that tried to go around.

Meanwhile, Tangle dealt with the ones that slipped through the cracks, sending waves of her ghost-like cars and other things summoned with her weapon to crash into them and knock the collective group back once more.

They were killing the zombies as fast as they could, and the flood wasn’t getting anywhere. But it also wasn’t going away. There seemed to be an unlimited number of the creatures that just kept pouring through. And eventually, Scout and the others were going to slip up, get tired, or run out of firepower. It was looking like the zombies would win this war of attrition through sheer force of numbers.

“Block the doors?” Scout blurted the suggestion in between firing three more quick shots, two of which struck home. If they could somehow close the vaults off, it could give them a break and stop the reinforcement zombies from coming through.

“With what?” Sean asked, even as he used Vulcan to tear through another handful of the relentless monsters. Hovering over his right shoulder, VJ fired a few shots of his own as if for emphasis. “We don’t have anything to block them, unless Tangle can?” He glanced that way with those words.

Tangle, for her part, grimaced while shaking her head. “Sorry, the only thing that comes to mind is–” She stopped talking for a moment, extending her flashlight-like weapon to project an elephant, which charged across the room to trample a dozen zombies under its feet. “The only thing I can think of is breaking the portals, but we’d need to be inside each vault to do that!”

“Scout!” Tristan blurted, charging up another shot to fire. “Scout, your rifle! Use the scope-portals to see into the vaults.”

“He’s right,” Tangle realized aloud. “Scout, forget shooting the zombies. We’ll handle them. Focus on getting a view into each room. Look for runes above and to both sides of the door and hit them with whatever you can to break them. Guys, hold the line until she manages that.”

Taking a half second to put a hand on Scout’s shoulder and squeeze, Tristan urged, “Don’t worry, you’ve got this. We’ll cover here.” Suiting action to words, the boy simultaneously fired a charged shot from his cannon that blew through a handful of the undead creatures while also producing a knife with his other hand. A quick flick of his wrist sent the blade through the eye socket of another zombie that he’d barely been glancing at. A moment later, a spell on the knife ignited the zombie’s head and blew it apart.

Trying not to think about how much pressure this suddenly was (or about how it felt to have Tristan’s hand on her shoulder even under these circumstances), Scout pivoted away from the group. She let them cover her, dropping to one knee while bringing her rifle up. Taking aim through her scope at a random bit of wall near the ceiling, she fired a scope-portal about midway there, above everyone’s heads. Then she switched her view to seeing through the portal, adjusting to point it toward the nearest vault doorway. From that position, she could barely see the entrance, firing to create another scope portal in the doorway, just above the heads of the zombies.

From there, it was a simple matter to make one more scope portal inside the vault itself. The whole place was literally filled with zombies. The room was the size of a football field, with the creatures packed in like sardines. No wonder they kept coming, if every room was like this one. The only thing slowing them down was the size of the doorway they were coming through.

Time to end that. Adjusting the scope-portal to see back toward the vault entrance, Scout zoomed in on the doorway. Behind her, she could still hear all the fighting going on, but had to force herself to ignore the distraction and just trust that Tristan, Columbus, Sean, and Professor Tangle could handle it.

Sure enough, there were lines of runes along the top and sides of the door. As Tangle had said, now she just had to damage it enough to break the spell creating the portal. For that, Scout flipped two switches along the side of her rifle, switching to her explosive rounds. Those weren’t as plentiful as the regular ammunition that her rifle basically generated on its own, but they would do the job of damaging that wall a lot better.

She took a breath, slowly let it out while ignoring all the fighting going on mere feet away from her, and fired the first shot through the portal. Shifting the scope slightly to the right, she fired again, then repeated it a third time after another shift. All along the spell where her shots struck it, the rounds exploded into miniature balls of fire.

That was enough. The damage to the spell disrupted it, and Scout saw the doorway leading into the main room suddenly disappear, leaving behind a blank wall and cutting off that horde of zombies waiting to emerge.

Quickly, she looked up from her rifle, glancing toward the door from this side. Yes, the first vault was cut off, stemming one source of the monsters, at least. Unfortunately, that left a lot more to go, considering there were six vaults along on either side.

Oh well, that just meant she had to get busy rather than continue patting herself on the back. Quickly disabling the scope-portals she’d used already, Scout got to work setting up a new line into the second vault. This time she had a better idea of what she was doing, firing each viewing portal in rapid succession to get a good line on the spell there. In the background, she heard Tangle telling Columbus and Sean to focus on one side, and felt someone bump against her as they adjusted their stance. Ignore it. She had to ignore it. They would handle the problem here in the room, she just had to do her job. Even if the thoughts of what was going on with her mother back in the main building, or her sister downstairs, were just as distracting as the zombies right here were.

Shutting out every other worry, Scout took more shots at the portal spell for the second vault, destroying it and cutting off that room as well. Through the scope, she could see the confused zombies stumble up against the blank wall where the doorway had been.

Two down, ten to go. Faster. She had to be faster with it and shut these vaults down before she and the others were overrun. Every second that she let pass without closing another portal was a second where a dozen more zombies could stagger through into the room to join their relentless companions.

Settling into a routine by then, Scout took out the third vault, then the fourth one. Eight to go, and there was definitely a noticeable lag to the flow of zombies by that point. It was helping. Especially as she’d focused on one side first, cutting off two-thirds of the zombie portals from that direction to allow the others to focus more attention on the other side. More attention meant more focused firepower, which took the zombies down faster.

As she turned her attention to the fifth vault, Scout paused briefly. A strange, tingling sensation, like she was being watched, came over her. She felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up, and briefly raised her head from the gun. Her eyes glanced around, but could find nothing. There were no zombies anywhere near her, and no other threat that she could see.

Apparently catching sight of her looking out of the corner of his eye, Tristan turned slightly to see what she was doing. Scout started to shake her head at him, but the moment he was facing her, she saw his eyes widen.

“Scout!” the boy blurted, lunging to grab her arm. He yanked her up and out of the way, falling backward in the process. The two of them crashed together to the floor with a pair of yelps.

Right where she had been crouching, Scout saw them. Ten little… strings? They came from above, wiggling as though in agitation. Confused, the girl raised her eyes, following the strings to their source. And then she saw him.

The man clung to the ceiling high above. His figure was… wrong. His legs were drawn up so that if he had been on the floor, he would have been kneeling. Though he was ostensibly facing the ceiling itself, his torso was twisted around unnaturally to face the floor below, while his head was twisted even further so that he was looking at them from a completely different angle than the way he should have been. His arms were wrong as well, twisted away from the direction of his torso to point straight down. His long, gangly fingers were attached to hands that seemed three times too large for the rest of his body, and those ten strings that had been about to grab onto Scout came from each of those fingers. Strings which were already slurping back up even as the man’s twisted-around head met her gaze with eyes that weren’t there, the sockets dark, empty voids.

Tristan and Scout both brought their weapons up to shoot at the thing as their Stranger senses went wild, but he had already inverted to drop to the floor nearby. With creaking bones, the figure drew himself up to his full, impressive height, standing eight feet high. He wore black pants and an old-fashioned striped tailcoat over a frilly white shirt and stained brown vest.  

Tangle had realized what was happening by then, spinning that way with her weapon up. Seeing the man there, however, she paused. “What the…”

“Hello.” The man greeted them while holding up his hands, palm out. The strings were still hanging a few inches out from his fingertips, wiggling in the air like worms. “We can’t let you break any more of our master’s toys. It’s time to sleep.”

Abruptly, the ten strings launched outward, shooting through the air toward Scout and the others. The five of them each had two strings coming their way, fast enough that even as her recently acquired boost kicked in, Scout realized that they were coming too fast for most of the others to escape. Her gun snapped up and she fired two quick shots while throwing herself to the side. Though her boost made everything else seem to be in slow motion, the strings were so fast they seemed to be moving normally.

Both of Scout’s shots went straight for the man’s head. But just before they would have struck home, that head literally opened up. A hole appeared right in the middle of the man’s face, leading through to the open air behind him just long enough for the bullets to pass harmlessly through before closing once more.

Beside her, Tristan was moving just as quickly, his own boost kicking in to send him the other way while he fired a shot of his own at the man’s chest. A shot which met with the same reaction, as his torso pulled apart with a distinct slurping noise, creating a large hole that the beam easily passed through.

The cannon on Tristan’s arm shifted then, switching from gun to gauntlet with an extended blade all along the side. With a grunt, he threw himself that way, his figure blurring as he swiped at the creepy figure. In response, the man instantly bent all the way backward at the knees, his body horizontal to the ground while the blade went through the air just above him. Staying in that awkward position, he sent those strings from his fingers up.

“No!” Tangle was there, using a wave of her hand and some kind of telekinetic or wind power to throw Tristan out of the way just before the strings would have caught him. “Don’t let those things touch you.”

“But we like to touch,” the eyeless figure announced, righting himself once more. The strings danced through the air as he wiggled his fingers. “We Strings touch and play. Strings do good work for their master.”

“If they touch you, they puppet you,” Tangle informed them, keeping a wary eye on the figure as it watched for an opening, head cocked unnaturally to the side. “Like a marionette. They’ll take control. Everything you see is strings. The whole body. That’s why it can pull apart and put holes in itself like that. The whole body is just millions of sapient strings shaped like a person. They’re a colony creature.”

A colony creature. Scout’s eyes widened at that. It was true. The whole misshapen thing was just one huge collection of strings, like a… like a puppet made of yarn.

The creature (or creatures, apparently) gave an empty smile at that. Then a dozen strings suddenly burst from their chest, rushing not for the group, but for the rune on the wall that was blocking communication with the outside world. They were trying to break the spell, but were blocked by a quick wave of fire that Tangle created, shrieking in a collective voice.

“Scout, keep killing the doors,” Tangle ordered, before going after the String-thing with Tristan right behind her. The two of them were dealing with that, while Columbus, Sean, and the Vulcans focused on the zombies.

Which left Scout to get those vaults closed off. Hurriedly, the girl returned to her work. Now it was even harder to ignore everything else that was going on. The horrible creepiness of the so-called Strings and the thought of what might happen to Tristan and the others was almost too distracting. But she bore down, forcing herself to shut that out. The sooner she closed those vaults, the better for everyone.

Finishing off the vaults on one side before turning her aim to the six on the far side, Scout heard Sean telling Vulcan to keep helping Columbus. From the corner of her eye, she saw the boy rush by her while VJ transformed into his sword mode and fell into his hand. He threw himself into the path of several more strings, slicing through them with his word before shifting VJ to a shield and batting away another group. They had been coming for her, but Sean stopped them, standing in their path. “Keep going!” he blurted. “I’ve got you!”

Another vault down. Five left. Just five. The zombies seemed to have realized they were being cut off, so they were trying to pour out even faster. But there were still less vaults, allowing Columbus and Vulcan to narrow their firepower. She just hoped they could keep it up long enough for her to close off the rest.

Another trio of shots. Another vault down, its portal broken. Then another. Grimacing as the sounds of fighting only intensified behind her, Scout set another line of portals. She was moving as fast as she could, her inherited boost kicking in once again to slow everything down so she could line up her shots in what amounted to a second. Three more shots. Boom, boom, boom. Another vault cut off.

Finally, she was down to the last one. Just as she lined up her shot, there was a thud beside her. Scout’s eyes snapped down to see Sean on the ground, trying to roll over. Before he could get up, one of those strings came shooting through the air toward her. Scout started to jerk her gun around while half-falling backward, but it was too late.

It was not too late, however, for Tristan to throw himself into the string. Literally. He used his possession, disappearing into the string just before it would have struck Scout. Instantly, the string jerked backward away from her. Tristan came stumbling out of the string a moment later, falling to his knees and puking on the floor. At the same time, the String-creature itself (themselves?) stumbled as well. Giving a shriek, they leapt to the ceiling and scrambled away, disappearing into what looked like a second elevator shaft across the room.

She wanted to check on Tristan, but there was one more vault. Taking those last couple shots to close it off, Scout finally dropped her rifle and looked up in time to see Columbus finish the last of the zombies that had emerged. He was utterly soaked in blood and… and other things, panting as he stood in the midst of a pile of re-killed corpses. But it was done. The doors were closed, the vaults were cut off.

“Tristan?” She managed, looking that way.

“Good,” the boy himself replied, even as Tangle crouched by him. “I’m–uuulph. Not doing that again. Hive mind. Controlling one just gets all the others in your head and… not… not good. Not fun.”

His head snapped up then, almost violently. “Bomb. Bomb. There’s a bomb.”

“What?” Tangle demanded. “What bomb?”

“Strings,” Tristan hurriedly blurted, “the Strings. They have a bomb in the building. It’s a failsafe. If they really think there’s a chance of Avalon getting to the vault, they’re going to blow this whole place up. They’re probably on their way to set it right now.” He forced himself to his feet, stumbling a little. “We have to stop them.”

“But if they double back,” Sean pointed out, “and we’re not here, they could break the communication-blocking spell and get reinforcements that we can’t handle.”

Tangle nodded. “I’ll stay here. I can protect the spell myself, just in case. You saw how the bomb works?”

“Yeah,” Tristan confirmed. “I can disable it.” He tapped the side of his head then. “I know where it is, and how to disarm the thing. Perfect memory’s good for something after all.”

“Are you sure you’ll be okay by yourself?” Columbus hesitantly asked Tangle.

The woman gave a single nod. “Kids, I–I hate this. I hate sending you–never mind. Not time. Just go. Stop the bomb. You can do this. Get past Strings and disable that bomb. Go!”

Glancing briefly to one another, Scout and the three boys ran for the elevator.

“Tell you one thing,” Sean announced as they sprinted.

“I’m about ready for a vacation from this vacation.”

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Interim Incursion 43-03 (Sean)

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There was at least one good thing about the vault mission coming a few days earlier than expected. It meant that Sean Gerardo didn’t have time to dwell on what his parents could possibly be doing with those Runner guys. It was probably just something for their work, but still, he’d been thinking about it ever since he and the others had spotted them.

Normally he was okay with his parents not really having much to do with him. He wasn’t exactly a kid anymore, after all. He’d grown up this way and it was just the way it was. He’d moved on from getting sad every time his parents failed to show interest in him. But this time, they had been right there. They were right there, and they either knew he was there on a field trip so they could have come over to say hi. Or they didn’t know, meaning they’d paid absolutely no attention to where he was and what he was doing. That one… that one kind of stung.

But now he didn’t have to focus on any of that. Because his attention was quite thoroughly occupied. If there was one thing that was going to stop him from thinking about his parents, it was a mission to prevent the intergalactic evil empire of body-snatchers from destroying the one thing that could stop them from enslaving all Heretics on Earth. That sort of had priority.

At the moment, the Seosten and their pawns at the bank were busy fighting Gaia and a bunch of other adults. They also thought that Sean and the others were safely contained under a marble dome that Sands had created at her mother’s insistence. As far as they knew, there was no way to escape that building.

But Sean’s side had a secret weapon: Dries Aken, who knew how to create temporary holes in their anti-teleportation technology. He’d done just that and extricated the group from their covered dome. So now, while Gaia and the others in there kept the bad guys busy, Sean, Avalon, Sands, Scout, Columbus, Doug, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan had joined Dries, Tangle, and Kohaku to sneak into the actual vault.

“Everyone move very slowly,” Professor Tangle quietly murmured as she led them around the side of the vans. The dark-skinned woman had one hand up, a red ball of energy pulsing with power within her grasp. From what she’d said, the ball was part of a power that would keep everyone within a few feet of her invisible against most forms of detection. They just couldn’t move too quickly or suddenly. It seemed a bit like Jazz’s invisibility power, except stronger.

Jazz. She and Gordon were with Gabriel Prosser and his people, helping to deal with the army that the Seosten had had lying in wait to act as reinforcements when the fight broke out here. Everyone was doing their part, from his group, to Gaia and the others playing distraction, to Prosser countering the Seosten’s reinforcements, to Roxa, Flick, and the others at the Alter hotel to stop the bad guys from going in the back door of the vault.

Thinking about Roxa in that moment was a mistake. It was a distraction. He couldn’t start thinking about every bad thing that could happen to her at that place, because then he wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. With effort, he shoved it aside, burying those nagging worries while reaching down to put a hand on the top of Vulcan’s head for comfort. VJ (Vulcan Junior) was there too, attached to Vulcan like a backpack, since letting him fly around would have stressed the invisibility power too much.

Even with the group inside drawing so much attention, there was still security outside in the form of cameras and a couple guards standing by the actual entrance to the vaults (hidden in what looked from the outside like a grain silo). Which was why they had to stay invisible and move slowly. Even knowing that, however, Sean was still antsy. With everything that was going on and how critical this entire mission was, the idea of moving across the lot and then the field beyond at such a… gradual pace was hard to accept. Part of him wanted to just make a sprint straight for the vault. It was right there, and the people inside were busy fighting Gaia and all the others. Surely they could make it if they just ran for it. Get to the vault and teleport out. But if something happened while they were taking their time and just sort of walking that way, either to them, to the people inside, or… or to the others like Roxa, he’d… they’d…

No. As hard as it was, as much as it let his mind drift more than he wanted it to, moving slowly was the answer. The Seosten would move entire planets to stop them from reaching the vault. If they had the slightest idea that Avalon wasn’t safely contained under that dome inside, that she was so close to the spell that her ancestor had left, they’d abandon the fight in an instant.

So they walked. With Dries and Tangle at the front, Kohaku at the back, and Sean and the others between them, the group gradually moved across the parking lot and through the field that led to the fake silo. Sean could see the two guards standing out front, their attention riveted on the main house where all the fighting was going on. He wondered how much they knew about what was going on in there from moment to moment. Did they have a way to watch the battle, or were they relying on updates? How distracted were they?

Both guards were dressed in what looked like simple ranch hand clothes, jeans, flannel shirts, and thick boots, with shotguns held loosely in their hands. Despite their appearances, however, Sean and the others knew the truth. They were both incredibly powerful Heretics who were currently possessed by incredibly powerful Seosten. If Sean and the others were going to pull this off without wasting too much time or alerting the others inside, the only chance they had was in taking them by surprise.

That in itself would have been impossible without Kohaku, Tangle, and Dries. The three adult Heretics between them had enough powers and spells to keep the group hidden. Kohaku by herself had been the head of security for the school for decades, and Dries, for all his issues, was a genius at that stuff. Tangle wasn’t particularly focused on stealth or security, but she was an experienced Heretic with plenty of motivation to stop the Seosten Empire.

They didn’t approach the silo directly. Instead, Tangle and Dries led the group slowly on a curved, rounding path, ever so gradually looping in toward the group from the side. It was excruciatingly slow, and every time the guards at the silo happened to glance that way or shift their attention at all, Sean became briefly convinced they had been exposed. Walking like this, right out in the open, was basically torture.

But it worked. Gradually, the group moved out of the guards’ line of sight and looped back from the other direction. They approached the silo from the side, moving slowly enough that any disturbance in the grass and weeds could be taken as just the wind. One step after another, they drew closer and closer to that building. And closer, by extension, to finishing this whole thing.

Finally, about twenty yards from the pair of guards, Professor Kohaku moved to the front while holding a hand up to stop them. She and Dries then moved slowly that way, relying on invisibility of their own while Tangle stayed with Sean and the others to keep them hidden. While Sean watched with the rest of the group, one hand still on Vulcan’s head, Dries and Kohaku slowly made their way closer, step by step, to the unaware guards. Despite himself, Sean had to hold his breath. This was a key moment, if something went wrong here… he didn’t want to think about it, despite his traitorous brain’s insistence on doing just that.

Dries and Kohaku split up once they reached the guards, each moving behind one of them. The security chief looked back toward Tangle, holding up a hand with three fingers raised. Gradually, she lowered each finger, then made a fist.

At the end of the countdown, Tangle used the hand that wasn’t currently raised with the glowing red orb to produce a small stone with a rune on it, activating a spell that would cast an illusion over the entire area around them to hide what was about to happen from the cameras and anyone who happened to glance that way. When he was told about it, Columbus had compared it to the humans looping camera footage. In this case, it created a hologram of the past several minutes and projected it over the area, hiding what was actually happening within it.

The guards clearly noticed something happening when the spell activated. But before they could do anything about it, Dries and Kohaku struck. Moving simultaneously, the two of them quickly slapped prepared bits of cloth against each of the men’s necks. There were three spells on those cloths, each prepared by Dries, Apollo, and Sariel working together. The first would knock the man out. The second was a variant of the expulsion rune, which would instantly kick their Seosten host out of the body. And the third would cut off those Seosten’s connection to the rest of their group through that mind-link thing they tended to have. Unless any of the Seosten inside actively tried to contact them, they wouldn’t know what had happened. And with any luck, Gaia and the others would keep them too busy to think about that.

As the unconscious Heretic guards dropped to the ground, the two utterly surprised Seosten who had been possessing them were revealed. They were then just as quickly killed as Dries and Kohaku cut their throats before they could recover from their abrupt exorcism.

With the guards down and their approach hidden by the magical hologram, Sean and the others quickly raced to the door. Dries was already working on getting it open, while Kohaku checked the fallen Seosten for anything useful, taking a couple weapons and other enchanted objects and dropping them into her jacket. Tangle, finally able to stop using that cloaking power, moved to help.

Sean, meanwhile, found himself looking toward Vanessa and Tristan. “You guys ever think this year would turn out like this when it started?”

Tristan, in turn, shrugged. Bobbi-Bobbi wrapped around his shoulders, basically did the same thing. How a mechanical snake managed to shrug was beyond Sean, but the creature somehow pulled it off.

“When your school year started, I was basically frozen in super-carbonite,” Tristan pointed out. “And also I was a kid.” He paused then, considering before giving a sharp headshake. “This year has been weird.”

“This life has been weird,” Vanessa corrected him. She was holding her whip with one hand and one of the Seosten laser pistols with the other after apparently commandeering it during the fight back in the building.

“Yeah,” Doug agreed. “I’ve only known most of what’s actually going on for a little while. I can’t imagine how long this year has been for anyone who saw the whole thing.”

“Some of us have been dealing with it for longer than just the year,” Avalon quietly muttered, exchanging brief looks with both sets of twins before turning her attention to Sean. “And some of us are practically saints for sticking through this even though it doesn’t directly affect them.”

“You’re my team,” Sean replied simply. “It affects me. Besides, kind of a personal connection to werewolves, remember? Getting rid of the bad Seosten and fixing this whole mess does affect me.”

“Now,” Sands started, teasing, “when you say personal connection to werewolves, do you mean through your uncle’s romance, or your own?”

Sean was saved from answering that by Dries, who announced, “It’s open.” He stood, stepping back as the twin doors into the silo slid apart, allowing them to enter.

“Move,” Kohaku urged, waving a hand quickly. “The sooner we get inside and close the doors, the sooner Dries can stop blocking the alarms about them being open.”

“Right, c’mon, buddy.” Sean waved for Vulcan to keep up, heading for the doorway. His cyberform partner followed, and they joined the others in entering the vault. Well, the building the vault entrances were kept in, anyway.

The room they entered was a couple hundred feet across and square. It was also completely empty, aside from six doors that lined the walls to either side. Twelve in total. Straight ahead and on the opposite side of the room from the entrance was a large freight elevator.

The elevator. That’s what they needed. The other doors were low-security vaults, and there was no way Liesje’s would be anywhere near ‘low-security’. They needed to take the elevator down into the bowels of this place.

Heh, bowels. He was still a teenage boy, damn it.

“No-no-nobody move. Nobody move.” Dries spoke quickly, already moving to draw something on the nearby wall while repeating those words to himself. “Not moving. I said don’t move so they better not. Better not move or this is going to go wrong. Wrong wrong, can’t go wrong. Too important. Stay–stay in place. Stay in that place. Not a prison. Have to stay out of prison. Look, do the spell. Do the spell, you can do the spell, see? See. Spell. Good, all good, it’s good.”

“Mr. Aken,” Kohaku started once she exchanged looks with the man himself, “has put a communication block over the building. Whatever happens in here, as long as the spell remains active, no one outside will hear about it.”

Raising her hand, Vanessa spoke when the woman looked to her. “Does that include the Seosten mind-link spell?”

It was Dries who answered. “Yes, yes, of course. Of course it includes that. But that–that…” He looked like he lost his train of thought for a moment, staring off at nothing long enough for everyone to look at each other, a bit antsy considering the time table they were working with. Then he just seemed to snap out of it, continuing. “That’s good and bad. It’s–it’s–it’s good and bad. It means they can’t send out a message. But it–they don’t get messages either. They don’t get messages, and they’ll know they’re cut off.”

“So any Seosten who are in here will know that they’ve been blocked,” Professor Tangle murmured. “And that means that–” In mid-sentence, the woman suddenly stopped. She pivoted on one foot, spinning completely around while her hand snapped out.

Three partially decayed figures were there, by one of the random vault doors that was suddenly open. They’d stumbled through the door and, seeing the group, started to lunge that way.

But Tangle was quicker. As she held her hand out, a ghostly image erupted from her. It looked… well, it looked like a car. A sedan, actually, aside from being grayish-blue and partially translucent. Like the… ghost of a car.

It certainly didn’t seem ghost-like, however, as the car literally slammed into the approaching zombies. It flattened two and sent one flying across the room. A second later, the ghost-car continued its path right through the far wall, disappearing without causing any other damage aside from its collision with the zombies.

Kohaku finished the creatures off, while Sean and the others simply stared with wide eyes. “What–what the hell kind of power is that?” Sean demanded.

“Not a power,” Tangle informed them. “My weapon.” She turned to show them then. It looked like a simple flashlight in her hand. “The short version is I record things and then project them doing the same thing that they were recorded doing. But more importantly, why are there zombies in here?”

“Security measure,” Scout announced, her brow furrowed as she pointed. “They’re not alone.”

She was right, there were more zombies emerging from more vaults. One that the girl herself shot, before the one that appeared beside it was taken down by a blast from Tristan’s Bobbi-Bobbi cannon. Another on the opposite side of the room was killed by a blast from Columbus’ goggles.

“She’s right,” Kohaku agreed. “Either an automated feature or someone below triggered them. Either way, I bet every one of these vaults is full of those annoying bastards.”

“They’ll go for the spell,” Tangle murmured. “That’s what I’d make them do. They’ll look for any unknown magic and try to destroy it. And the second they do–”

Columbus finished her words. “They’ll know we’re here. Too bad our brand-spanking new necromancer isn’t here. She’d be pretty useful right now.”

“But we can’t just stand here and babysit the spell all day,” Shiori pointed out, pretty clearly trying not to think about what Flick was doing rather than being there at the vault with them. “We’ve kinda got things to do.”

“We don’t all have to,” Sean found himself saying. “A few of us stay back, guard the spell, and the rest of you go.” Even as he spoke, a couple more zombies emerged from another vault and were put down.

“They’ll start coming faster,” Kohaku warned him. “There could be thousands of zombies in each of these vaults. You’ll need plenty of help.”

“He’s got it,” Columbus announced. “I’ll stay with him.” The two boys exchanged brief looks, their silent meaning clear. They didn’t want this to be like what happened back at the hospital, when Rudolph was… Sean shut the thought out of his head.

In the end, Tangle, Scout, and Tristan agreed to stay back as well. The five of them would guard the spell (and the exit, just in case they went for that too) from the zombies and anything else that came out. Meanwhile, Kohaku and Dries would go with Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, Sands, and Doug to find the actual vault.

Shiori, Vanessa, and Sands were obviously more than a little hesitant to leave their siblings behind, but it was the best way. And there wasn’t time for more discussion, as the zombies kept pouring in, their appearances already starting to come faster and with more numbers. There was no telling which door they would come through next, and what had once been one or two was starting to be four or five per door. Sean didn’t want to think about what would happen if they all came at once.

When. When they all came at once.

Everyone wanted to say more, but there wasn’t time. Gaia and the rest could only keep their people busy for so long in there. Not to mention how long it might be before someone noticed something wrong in here. Every second that passed… they didn’t have time.

Killing several more zombies that had appeared to clear a path, Kohaku led her group on a sprint to the freight elevator. Then they were gone, descending deep underground to find the vault. Hopefully before Sean and the others were overrun.

“Okay,” Professor Tangle murmured while looking to the small group. “Don’t break ranks. Don’t let the zombies get past you. Stand together, shoot them as they approach. Watch for groups to cluster, and make sure they’re dead. Don’t let crawling ones take you by surprise. And… I know I haven’t really had a chance to be your teacher this year, but I want you guys to know that I’m really proud of everything you’ve managed to do so far. You’re–you’re pretty amazing.”

With VJ flying over his shoulder and Vulcan in his gun form in both hands, Sean set himself. He glanced to Scout and Tristan to his right, then Columbus to his left before replying. “Don’t worry, Professor. You might not have been there for any of our classes…

“But this is definitely a kick-ass field trip.”

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Interim Incursion 43-02 (Sands)

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As the shooting started, Sands had already tapped her mace against the floor to register that reinforced material. Then she swung it up, creating a wall out of that same material in front of herself and her sister. The building was designed to be almost impregnable through force. That included damaging the interior, such as cutting up through the floor. Which was coming in handy now, and would again in a few minutes. Once it was time.

Beside her, Scout snapped her rifle up and aimed at one of her scope-portals before pulling the trigger twice quickly. Sands wasn’t sure what her sister was aiming for, but there was a yelp of pain barely audible over the onslaught of gunfire. She kept that up for a moment, taking careful, pointed shots. The enemies they were facing weren’t going to go down that easily. They all had protection. Some weren’t even hurt that much by the bullets. But it still kept them busy. And helped distract them from the bigger threat. Namely, the adults.

On Sands’ other side, Doug appeared, putting his back against the wall she had created. He had a spear in one hand and shield in the other. “Your mom took that forcefield down pretty quick,” he remarked while clearly catching his breath. There was blood on his spear and dents in the shield.

Sands nodded. “There was no point to keeping it up. We need to fight these guys. Maintaining the shield would just drain her, and sitting here behind a forcefield isn’t the point. The point is to fight.”

“Kinda seems like you disagree with that,” the boy pointed out while nodding to the wall they were behind.

Sands grinned at him while raising the mace to make the wall as tall as she could. “Not exactly,” she replied before looking to Scout. “Ready?”

The other girl nodded, and Sands pivoted to face the wall. She made a sweeping motion with her mace. Because Sands, like others, had been upgrading her weapon over the year. Namely, she could now control portions of the structures that she created with her mace.

The wall, which she had added long, jagged spikes to all along the front, immediately began to tip forward as Sands removed part of the bottom front and directed the whole thing with her mace. With a terrifying crash, it collapsed toward the ground. The thing was tall enough that it reached all the way to the nearest wall, forcing any of the enemies who had been in front of it to scatter toward either side.

And the girls were ready. Scout already had portals set up along one side, creating a shooting gallery that she was able to flood with bullets without bothering to aim.

Sands, meanwhile, cut around the other side of the fallen wall. Her mace swung hard, colliding with the man who had just managed to dive out from under the collapsing structure. Even at full strength, which for her was pretty impressive, the mace barely seemed to do anything. It glanced off the man’s back as if she had hit a brick wall without any enhanced strength.

Sands swung again, a backhand strike with her mace. But the possessed Heretic was too fast for that. His hand snapped out, catching the edge of her weapon before his foot collided with her stomach.

His foot broke. Because, as tough as the man might’ve been, Sands was standing still in that second. And as long as she stood still, she was basically invulnerable. All of the force that the man put into his attack went right back into his leg as it met the immovable object.

With a quick gesture, Sands made a very small section of floor rise up under the staggering man’s good foot. It was barely an inch high. Then she immediately made a pulling motion that yanked the floor bit toward herself. The man was hauled completely off that remaining foot and began to stumble, even as Sands spun to bring her weapon around into a full roundhouse swing with both hands.

Even then, the man was too quick. He suddenly shrank down, dropping to about a third of his normal height so that her mace completely missed, whiffing over his head. Returning to his normal height as he pivoted, the man planted his suddenly healed foot down solidly. It had repaired itself that quickly. His hand snapped out, stopping just in front of Sands’ face before the man conjured some kind of blindingly bright flash centered right in front of her eyes. She stumbled with a yelp as she was briefly blinded, losing the invulnerability that staying still offered. Which was the opening that the man had been looking for, his fist lashing out toward her face while a gleaming metal blade slid out from his knuckles. Sands couldn’t see it, but she heard the blade appear, and felt as it cut right across the side of her face when her head jerked desperately to the side at the last instant.

Bullets tore into the man then, striking from several different angles. Scout, coming to her aid. Still not enough to kill him, but they stung and made him stagger back a step. Which bought Sands a brief opening, and she took advantage of by shifting directly into her two-dimensional shadow shape, hugging the floor like a puddle of darkness.

Using that insubstantial shadow form, Sands ‘swam’ up the man’s legs and over his back before reforming herself there to wrap up her mace around his throat tightly from behind.

He didn’t exactly go down. The man’s hand reached back to grab onto her, but before he could, Doug was there. He drove his spear into the distracted man’s hand. The blade broke against the skin, but the impact was enough to draw his attention that way just as Doug slammed his shield into the guy’s face.

Sands’ vision had come back by then, just in time for her to make that out. It was also in time for her to see the man snap his hand up, that blade that had extended from his knuckles cutting through Doug’s shoulder.

Choking him wasn’t working. The man clearly didn’t need air. Or at least not enough to matter in the short term. Instead, Sands released the man and swung her weapon one way, then the other, conjuring two quick marble pillars that wrapped around his arms to hold him in place. For a moment, anyway. With her other hand, she threw something into the air.

As expected, the man shrank once more to free himself easily from the pillars that held his arms. Which was when a shadow appeared over his head. His gaze snapped up, just in time to see Sands’ theriangelos rhino, conjured from the bit of prepared wood that she had just tossed into the air.

The man made a tiny noise in the back of his throat, already starting to dive out of the way. He was, after all, possessed by a Seosten, who boosted him to escape.

But two quick bullets from Scout caught his face, even as Doug’s hands lashed out, sending two metal coils from his palms that wrapped around the man to hold him. A new power that he’d picked up from the hospital trip. It was kind of gross, actually, seeing metal coils emerge from his palms. Columbus and Shiori kept calling him Scorpion for some reason.

The rhino fell, slamming into the man from above while he was held by those chains. And as tough as he may have been, that wasn’t something he could just shrug off. As the rhino straightened up under Sands’ command, the possessed man lay unconscious at its feet.

Which, of course, still left the actual Seosten. A glowing figure appeared, quickly resolving into a beautiful dark-haired female form. The so-called angel acted instantly, turning into a blur that kicked the feet out from under Doug, caught him by the arm, and threw him into Sands. She was even quick enough to dodge to the side just as another bullet from Scout tore through the air right where her head had been. She pivoted, her hand lashing out while she activated some kind of spell that brought five little marbles to her palm, throwing them. The tiny metal balls flew, correcting their course to collide with the sniper-girl in the distance before exploding in bursts of flame and made the girl yelp while falling over. Her rifle clattered to the floor.

“Scout!” Sands blurted before scrambling out from under Doug and to her feet. “Throw me at the bitch, then get ready to grab her,” she blurted to the boy beside her while grabbing onto his damaged shield. With a thought, she possessed it.

He did. Like that Captain America guy that Columbus kept talking about, Doug hurled his shield at the Seosten woman. As it spun through the air, Sands waited until the last second, just before the woman’s hand snapped out to catch it. Then she dove out of the thing, hitting the marble floor to slide between the woman’s legs and out the other side. In the process, Sands made a last second gesture with her mace, sending a thin pillar up. The pillar crashed into the shield as the Seosten woman held it horizontally in front of herself, slamming the thing up into her face.

As she slid between the woman’s legs, Sands popped back to her feet on the other side, already spinning to slam her mace into the back of her head. But the Seosten was still too quick. Even stunned by the shield to the face, she spun to catch the incoming mace with one hand. She yanked the thing from Sands’ grip, tossing it aside just as Doug’s chains caught both her wrists from behind. Her arms were yanked to either side, but the woman simply glowered briefly before giving a hard yank. Doug was hauled off his feet and brought flying toward the woman, even as she used the resulting slack to pivot in place, bringing up her foot to kick the boy when he reached her.

But Sands was quicker that time. Her hand caught the woman’s shirt, possessing it just long enough to pop out the other side. Landing directly in front of the woman, she braced herself. Simultaneously, Doug crashed into her from the front, while the Seosten’s foot slammed into her back. Neither made a dent against her motionless invulnerability, Doug yelping as if he had hit a wall, while the Seosten’s foot snapped, just like her host’s had.

Sands tried to follow up from that by slamming her elbow back into the woman’s face. But despite her broken foot, the Seosten was still too fast. Her head snapped out of the way, before she caught the back of Sands’ neck and gave a hard shove, smashing the girl’s forehead into the still-recovering Doug’s face. The next thing Sands knew through the moment of being dazed, she was being yanked around before a fist found its way into her stomach. Then she was flipped to the ground. A coin landed on her chest, before the spell on it was activated to create some kind of metal cocoon/shell that covered most of her body aside from her head and feet, trapping her against the floor.  

Oh well, it wouldn’t hold her. Sands started to shift into her two-dimensional shadow form to escape. But in that instant, she was struck by some kind of electrical shock, drawing a cry from her and leaving her unable to focus. Dazed, her eyes blinked up just in time to see the Seosten ignite one of those laser sword things, which she started to drive down toward Sands’ exposed face before she could recover or even think of using any kind of power.

Doug was there. Clicking his pen, he made some kind of ball appear in his other hand, flinging it at the woman’s face just before it exploded into a flash of blinding light that made the Seosten recoil, her laser sword missing Sands.

Another click of his pen and another simple ball was thrown. This one burst into goop. As the Seosten threw a hand up to block her face, the goop covered her arm. It instantly hardened and began to spread over the rest of her body, completely encasing her arm, then her shoulder and over her chest. As it continued to spread, the Seosten woman cursed, yanking a field-engraver out before drawing something quickly on the rapidly-spreading stuff. It turned to dust then, freeing her. Her hand immediately launched another of those coins, which struck Doug in the chest and expanded into a metal cocoon similar to the one trapping Sands. This one kept him upright, but he was just as contained.  

An instant later, the woman clearly heard the heavy pounding of Sands’ now-charging rhino, just before the animal would have slammed into her. That Seosten speed kicked in, and she managed to twist aside enough to avoid being gored by the horn. But the massive beast still sent her crashing along the floor while her laser sword flew from her grasp. But she got back up just as quickly, muttering a couple words while throwing what looked like a one foot long rope at the rhino. As the enchanted rope struck the theriangelos, it apparently cancelled the spell, dropping the animal back into a simple wooden block.

Doug and Sands were both trapped, and every time Sands tried to use her shadow-form to escape, the cocoon shocked her. From the sound of things, the boy wasn’t having much better luck.

Then the sound of a gunshot filled the air, followed by several more in quick succession. The Seosten woman was struck several times. Unfortunately, the protective magic she clearly had meant that none of the shots were lethal. Still, they hurt enough to get her attention. Scout had clearly recovered.

Taking several painful shots from all sides, the woman hit something on her arm to throw up a forcefield around herself, before turning right toward one of the random pillars in the room. Scout’s gun was barely visible as it fired yet again through one of its portals.

Evading that bullet despite the fact that it came through a portal behind her, the Seosten threw yet another enchanted coin that way. That time, the coin exploded into some kind of white light which disintegrated the pillar, leaving Scout… not exposed. The girl wasn’t there. Her rifle was, set up on a tripod and left to fire through an automated routine.

Realizing that in the same instant that Sands did, the Seosten woman spun… too late. Scout was there, having worked her way around behind her during that distraction. Using the solid-energy power that most of the team had picked up from the Tzentses to form a dagger, she slammed into the woman hard while driving it into her neck repeatedly, yanking it out and then driving it in again several times before they hit the ground together.

In the end, the woman was dead and Scout lay atop her body, her own exhausted panting cut off by the gasp of pleasure that came along with her pink aura.

“You guys okay?” Columbus was there, with Shiori and Sean. Vulcan was trotting alongside them, while Vulcan Junior flew overhead, sending out the occasional shot at an enemy.

“Little help?” Sands asked. “I can’t get out.”

Columbus and Shiori both used their metal-manipulation powers to tear the cocoon apart, freeing Sands before doing the same for Doug. By that point, Avalon (with Porthos riding on her shoulder), Vanessa, and Tristan had arrived, the boy picking up Scout’s gun along the way and tossing it to her. The nine teenagers were together once more, while sheer chaos surrounded them. The adults were still fighting in a furious tornado of violence and magic. Sands knew that both the Columbus, Shiori, and Sean trio and the Avalon, Vanessa, and Tristan trio had dealt with more than the single enemy that her group had. But the adults were in another league beyond even that. It was awesome, in the original sense of the word. Most of the possessed Heretics and enemy Seosten weren’t paying any attention to them. They didn’t have the chance to.

Looking to Avalon, Sands started, “Think it’s time for the next–”

“Get down!” Her mother’s voice interrupted, as a new forcefield dome suddenly covered the nine of them. Sands saw her mom appear nearby, just outside of the field with her crystal weapon in one hand, shaped like a spear at the moment.

“It’s too dangerous here,” the woman sharply informed them. “Cover and turtle.”

“But Mo–” Sands started.

“Cover and turtle now!” her mother snapped, holding a hand out to conjure some kind of wooden spike, which she sent flying at an enemy.

With a heavy sigh, Sands focused on her mace, making a wide sweeping gesture. Another dome, this one made from the same material as the floor, rose up and over to cover them.

It was only dark for a second before everyone produced their own glowing rocks for light. Avalon and Columbus also held privacy coins that would ensure their words weren’t overheard by anyone who happened to have enhanced senses (and happened to somehow be paying attention through the fight).

“Yes,” Avalon dryly replied to Sands’ earlier question. “It’s time for the next part.”

The annoyance that Sands had pasted across her face when her mother had told them to turtle had already vanished, since she no longer had to put on a show. “Great, so that means–”

Again, she was interrupted. That time, it was by a sudden bright light as a portal appeared directly in front of them. Through the portal, they could see the area just outside the main building, behind the vans and safely shielded from view.

Without missing a beat, the group quickly moved through the portal, disappearing from the room with all the fighting going on. They emerged to find three figures standing there waiting for them: Dries, Professor Tangle, and Professor Kohaku. The latter two had worked their way to the vault after the vans drew everyone’s attention, before guarding Dries as the man had worked over the past few minutes to make a brief hole in the security that kept people from teleporting out of the main building.

Now Avalon and the others were out, while everyone inside believed they were trapped under that dome and simply hiding through the fight. A fight which was really nothing more than an elaborate distraction, drawing everyone in to deal with the flashy spectacle of Gaia, Haiden, Sariel, Apollo, Dare, Larissa, and several other Seosten.

“Everyone make it?” Professor Kohaku asked, casting her gaze over them briefly as though doing a headcount before nodding to herself. “Great, sounds like Gaia and the others have everyone’s attention in there.

“Let’s go open that vault.”

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Interim Incursion 43-01 (Columbus)

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To be honest, Columbus was pretty sick of the Seosten Empire at this point.

Everything he learned about them, everything he heard from others about their monstrous actions in their war against the Fomorians, all the lows they were willing or eager to sink to, all of it just made him want to find the people in charge of their society and beat them until he couldn’t swing his fists anymore.

But that was the problem. He couldn’t do that, or it just wouldn’t accomplish anything. They were so far outside his league that he might as well have been a fly dreaming about uppercutting a human being. Their leadership, the ones actually responsible for all of this, were untouchable.

At least… directly. But he could screw with their plans. He could be a fly that buzzed in their ear at the right moment and ruined what they were trying to do. Even if he couldn’t take them on directly, he could hurt them. He could help fuck over those sadistic, enslaving bastards with every breath he had.

That was why he had to be a part of this. A mission that would stop the Seosten from enslaving Heretics here on Earth? Yes. Yes, he was all over that. If the headmistress or other adults had tried to keep them out of it… he didn’t know what he would have done, but he definitely would not have sat out and done nothing. The Seosten had been fucking with him and people he cared about for too long, to say nothing of how long they had been fucking with the human race in general. Columbus was going to help kick them in the collective balls, come hell or high water.

“Hey.” Shiori’s voice pulled him out of his introspection. “You okay?”

Before answering, Columbus looked around. They were sitting in the back of a van. They, in this case, referred to himself, his sister, and Avalon, Doug, Sean, Sands, and Scout. The rest of his team aside from Flick. In the front of the van, Larissa was driving, with Haiden beside her.

“Am I okay?” he echoed while turning his gaze back to Shiori. “It’s a chance to fuck over the Seosten. Yeah, I’m good.”

Sean, sitting in the seat behind them, leaned up to put a hand on his shoulder. “Damn straight. We’re going to teach these caremondas that their puppets don’t like having their strings pulled anymore.”

From his place beside Sean, Doug murmured, “I just hope we get there soon. I really can’t take much more of this waiting.”

They had to drive to the vault’s location because Crossroads did not allow any special transportation anywhere near it. No teleportation, no superspeed, no portals, nothing. They had the whole place locked down tight. Not only that, there was some kind of special spatial affect around it that made traveling to the vault physically several times longer than it should be. That allowed the people inside plenty of time to see who was coming and prepare if there was trouble. They had to travel along a deceptively simple looking dirt road for miles and miles just to get there.

From the driver’s seat, Larissa apparently heard Doug, because she called back, “Five minutes, guys. We’re almost there.”

Five minutes. They would be there in five minutes. Taking a breath, Columbus turned to look behind them. The second van was coming along right on their heels. Gaia and Dare sat in the front of that one, the latter driving. Sariel was in the back, along with Apollo, Dries Aken, and a handful of the freed Seosten who had agreed to come with and help.

Dries hadn’t been any more comfortable being around all those Seosten than Columbus would have been. But he was still working with Apollo and Sariel to discuss various things they might be able to do to change Liesje’s spell once they got hold of it. If they got hold of it. As well as discussing what defenses she might have put on it in addition to what was provided by the vault. Given their dramatically shortened timetable thanks to the Seosten making their move early, everyone was scrambling to be ready.

The rear van would also appear to be much emptier than it actually was, as far as the vault’s security was concerned. Apparently, just like Crossroads itself, the automated part of the security, the spells and technology that let the staff know who and how many were approaching, were blind to Seosten unless they chose to be seen. It was the same weakness, built into their society from the ground up, that had allowed Charmeine to wander freely through the school grounds without alerting anything.

They wouldn’t be invisible to actual people once they left the van, but that wouldn’t be a problem by that point.

Looking toward Avalon then, he saw the distracted look on her face. She was clearly busy worrying about what was going on with Flick. Just like Shiori, who was occupying herself by asking how he was doing.

“Hey,” Columbus spoke up toward Avalon, “you ready to see what your ancestor left for you?” An incredibly blatant and obvious attempt to draw her attention away from worrying about her girlfriend, of course. But obvious was all Columbus had at that point.

The girl took a moment, letting out a long breath while pushing a strand of dark hair back behind her ear with a thumb. “I just want to get this over with. Those assholes have been hunting my family for literally generations. They killed my mother. They… this needs to end.” Her voice was strained, making it perfectly clear just how much this was affecting her. As if it hadn’t been just from the look in her eyes.

“It will.” That was Scout, speaking up quietly from her place beside her sister. “We’re ending it.”

Sands nodded. “And Flick’ll be okay. She’s with Athena, remember?”

“Actually,” Columbus put in, “that reminds me, at what point do the Seosten leaders ask themselves why both the Olympian who embodies strategy and tactics and the one most associated with seeing the future decided the best way to beat the Fomorians was to change their entire society through civil war?”

Doug muttered, “I’m pretty sure if the Seosten leaders were capable of asking themselves introspective questions like that, Earth would’ve been cordially invited to join the Seosten Interstellar Alliance of Planets two and a half thousand years ago.”

The van pulled to a stop in front of what appeared to be a simple farm. But from the extensive briefings they’d been given, Columbus knew better. The farmhouse itself was where the lobby and offices of the vaults were. They had to go there first to check in and be taken through security procedures to ensure that they were who they said they were. The nearby barn held all the heavy duty equipment that would be brought out if anyone tried to take the vaults by force. Not every vault under their control was a blood vault. Those were extremely specialized and rare. There were many items under their protection that relied on ‘normal’ security measures.

As Columbus understood it, most of the vaults, blood or otherwise, weren’t even actually located anywhere near this place. It was just that the only entrances to get to them, through continually active portals of sorts, were kept here. The vaults themselves could be anywhere in the world, normally heavily buried and protected by a myriad of spells. Or even in their own little pocket dimension.

The way to those vault entrances was through the grain silo. It was an elevator of sorts, according to Gaia and Larissa. Once they were cleared by the staff in the house, they would be taken to the silo.

The other van pulled in behind them, and Columbus started to get out with the others. He glanced over to Shiori, hesitating. Even just glancing at her now, months after he had been freed, the boy couldn’t get Charmeine’s threats out of his head. Everything she had promised to do to hurt his sister. Everything she would have done, given half an excuse, still haunted him. He couldn’t stop hearing her voice. He woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweats and had to get up just to prove to himself that he could. Sean had woken up more than once to find Columbus slapping himself, using the pain and the motion of his arm to convince himself that he was still in control.

Talking to Klassin Roe helped, but the nightmares were nowhere near going away. Maybe this right here would help. Maybe fucking over the Seosten this much would give him some kind of closure.

Shiori had clearly noticed him looking, because she met his gaze and managed a slight smile despite her obvious worry. “What do you think Mom and Dad are doing right now?”

“Hiking,” Columbus immediately replied. “They’re definitely hiking. And Mom is taking pictures while Dad complains that she’s already got hundreds of them. Mom will see some bird or something that she wants that perfect picture of, so they’ll go wandering off the trail. But it’s okay because they’ve been all over that place so much they know it better than the rangers. They’ll wander out there. Dad’ll complain but he’ll go anyway because he can never really tell her no. He’ll make a big show of it and pretend to be lost. But then he’ll lead her to some picnic spot he set up ahead of time.”

He paused then, head tilting. “Mom and Dad are kind of dorks, aren’t they?“

Snorting, Shiori retorted, “Duh, have you met us?” Her smile was more genuine then. “I helped him set up picnics sometimes.”

Columbus grinned back at her despite himself. “I helped Mom decide what exotic bird she’d pretend to see as an excuse to go off the trail. I’m pretty sure Dad caught on when we started using South American birds.”

The others had climbed out by that point. Everyone from their van was stretching in the parking lot. But from the other van, only Gaia and Dare emerged. The Seosten, still invisible to any detection magic, stayed in the vehicle. And Apollo had ensured that no one glancing that way from outside the van would see anything amiss.

Cracking her knuckles, Professor Dare waved a hand, calling, “Okay guys, let’s get this show on the road.”

Rather than immediately start in with the others, Columbus hesitated a moment, scanning their faces. He wanted to see if he could notice when it happened. Because those words had been a signal for the Seosten in the van. Immediately, they would have recalled to Gaia, Dare, Doug, Sands, Scout, and Sean, having possessed them earlier just to make this possible.

Shiori and Avalon could not be possessed, and Columbus, for obvious reasons, had chosen not to. So it was simply those six who now had an extra passenger.

They could have simply been possessing them the entire time, of course. But for obvious reasons, everyone was more comfortable being possessed for as short of a time as possible. Besides, though it was mainly a Dries/Sariel/Apollo project, the other Seosten still wanted to be involved in the discussion of how to fix the spell when they found it. After all, it affected their people.

But even knowing it was about to happen, and watching for it, he still couldn’t tell exactly when his teammates were possessed. Which somehow made him feel even worse about the whole situation even though the obvious point was that they weren’t actually exerting any control, thus there was nothing to see.

With a soft sigh then, he followed the others toward the house. Dries would be waiting in the van while using some kind of magic to make himself as invisible to detection spells as the latter. Between that and Apollo’s magic on the van itself to thwart anyone glancing through the windows, they would be safe there until things went down.

Two elderly men, guards apparently, sat in rocking chairs on the front porch. As the group approached, one of the men spoke up. “Headmistress.”

“Chauncey,” Gaia greeted him with a smile. “How are Emma and Diane?”

The man shrugged. “Emma’s chomping at the bit to head to your school next year. And Diane’s preparing a dissertation on how she should be allowed to attend too, because she’s totally at least three years more advanced for her age.” Eying the woman, he added a sly, “What do you say? You want a precocious and motivated fourteen-year-old next year to shake things up?”

Chuckling softly, Gaia informed the man that things were already quite shaken enough without help. The man expressed mock disappointment before saying something to his partner. Then he stood up and moved to the door. “Come on,” he started easily, “I’ll take you through. Using a little student help to clear out one of your old vaults? Extra credit project?”

On the way, Columbus couldn’t help but wonder what Flick was doing right then. Was she in that hotel yet? How long would they have to wait? And just how long would they be able to stop the group there from breaking into the vault through the supposed back door? Would they be enough? All those questions and more kept rebounding through his mind. And a glance toward the others made it pretty clear that they were in the same position.

The door into the ‘farmhouse’ didn’t lead into anything resembling what it appeared to from the outside. Instead, Columbus and the others found themselves standing in what actually looked like a fairly modern bank lobby. The floor was marble, while the room itself stretched out several times larger than the entire building should have been. There were various pillars leading to a wide domed roof with stained glass windows, a security station straight ahead with a handful of armed and armored soldier-like figures standing beside what looked like metal detectors, and a wider area beyond where the bank personnel were all working with various clients at desks separated by privacy shields. At the far end of the wide open room was an alcove that reached all the way to the ceiling, with an enormous statue of Hieronymus Bosch.

Yeah, Columbus was pretty sure it was a good thing Dries had stayed out in the van. Even now, every adult Heretic likely knew what the man who killed Bosch looked like. And they might object to him coming into their bank.

The ‘farmer’ who walked them in stopped by the security checkpoint desk, as he and the guards there took a minute to chat casually with Gaia. One of them even recognized Larissa and came around to embrace her tightly, going on about how much she’d helped his son back when she’d had Peterson Neal’s current job as Head of Student Affairs. The man made her promise to visit that son and his new wife at some point before turning back to the rest of them.

“Okay, let’s get you all on through here. Everyone needs to move through the checkpoint. I hope you don’t have any weapons or unauthorized magic on you, because that’ll set off the machine. It’s going to give us a list of every bit of active magic. So no weapons, no unnecessary spells, no extradimensional containers that might have weapons on them…”

“It’s quite alright,” Gaia assured the man, stepping through the machine and out the other side first with no apparent issue. “They are all well prepared for this step.”

It was true. Everyone moved through the detector without setting it off. Even Sean didn’t have Vulcan with him for once. Nor did Avalon have her new little lizard, Porthos. Columbus wasn’t even allowed to wear his goggles into the building. But all of them were… well, close.

Once they passed through the detectors, a man in an extremely old-fashioned suit with ancient-looking bifocals and an actual white powdered wig approached. “Headmistress,” he began in a voice that sounded like he was literally talking through his nose, “So very good to see you. If you’ll come this way, we’ll begin the procedure to grant access to your vaults.”

With a smile, Gaia simply replied, “I’m afraid it’s not my vaults we’ll be visiting today, Fenwick. We’ll need to access my daughter’s vault.”

Blinking twice, the man turned his head that way. “Daughter’s vault? I wasn’t aware that Miss–ahh… that your daughter had a vault with us.”

“Liesje Aken’s vault,” Gaia informed him, like she was just giving him the name of a soup brand.

That made Fenwick do a quick double-take, mouth opening. “Ah, I’m sorry? I mean… I’d heard the rumors of course, but I– if you’re saying the girl is truly… if…” He paused, clearly taking a moment to find the right words. “It will all need to be verified, of course.”

“Yes,” Gaia replied dryly, “fortunately, our blood vaults come with a very simple method of identity verification which should make that quite simple.”

Giving a soft cough, the man bowed his head. “Of course. Let us see what–” In mid-sentence, he was interrupted by an annoying buzzer. It blared loudly, followed by a series of loud clanging sounds as a series of thick metal shields descended across every door in the room, as well as the stained glass windows above. In seconds, the entire room was cut off. The rest of the staff and customers were looking around in a mixture of confusion and annoyance, their mutterings getting louder.

Fenwick cursed under his breath. “I’m sorry, we’re having trouble with the security system lately. It keeps triggering the lockdown. We thought we had it fixed, but… well, I’m afraid we might be here for a little while until they sort out the new problem.”

From where he was standing by Larissa, Haiden remarked, “Sounds like you need some new engineers.”

Gaia, meanwhile, calmly asked, “Would you like some help with that?”

“Well, sure,” Fenwick quickly answered. “Of course, you probably won’t be able to do anything. The shields are spelled to be protected, and the control boxes for them are secreted in random pocket dimensions, far outside the reach of any kind of tech manipulation. Not to mention the spells and shields protecting them from influence. I’m afraid it’s quite impossi–”

That was as far as the man got before all the shields over the doors and windows abruptly retracted at once.

“I took the liberty of permanently disabling them,” Gaia informed the man casually. “That seemed the most prudent course, until you’re able to send people in to diagnose the problem.” She gave a very slight smile then. “Shall we proceed?”

“Yes, we should.” The answer came not from Fenwick in front of them, but from behind them, near the security station. As Columbus and the others turned, they found that Chauncey guy, the ‘farmer’ from the front porch who had walked them in. Now, the man was standing with some kind of massive harpoon gun leveled at them. Beside him, every security officer they’d passed was doing the same with their own weapons.

Almost in unison, everyone else in the bank leveled weapons at the group. Fenwick, the other employees, even the supposed customers. All of them, without fail or hesitation, drew arms and moved to surround them.

“You just couldn’t wait one more day, could you?” Chauncey complained. “One more day and then we all could’ve moved on from these hosts and no one would’ve been hurt.”

Seosten. All of them were possessed. Every last person in the bank, each a Heretic, was being puppeted. The whole thing was a trap.

Boy, if that had been a surprise, it probably would’ve been a bad one.

A forcefield appeared around them. Not part of the trap. It was Larissa, projecting the shield in a dome.

“Let me tell you how this is gonna go,” Chauncey, or the Seosten controlling him, continued. “First.” He snapped his fingers, and Columbus’s attention was instantly drawn to the nearby wall, where some kind of turret or cannon appeared. The thing sighted in at them with a threatening high-pitched whine of power, before just as quickly falling silent.

An instant later, it disappeared, only to be replaced by a different cannon that appeared at a different part of the wall. It too powered up to shoot before going quiet. Then three appeared at once, in different parts of the room. Then a single one directly above them. Then four together.

“Yeah, that’s gonna keep going,” Chauncey informed them. “Gaia there, she’s disabling these things the second they appear. But here’s the trick. They’re gonna keep coming. Every second or two, sometimes more than one. Maybe a dozen at once. Maybe just one. But they’ll keep transporting in, and if you give them even an instant to get a shot off, well… then you’ll be leaving with less people than you came in with, I’ll tell you that much. Those are capital ship-tier cannons, which will treat that cute little forcefield like tissue paper. If the headmistress lets herself get distracted even for a moment to do anything other than disabling those things…” He made a face. “It won’t be pretty.

“So, she’s a little busy right now. Which leaves all of you…” He looked to Columbus, Shiori, Scout, Sands, Sean, Doug, Avalon, Haiden, and Larissa. Then he looked around the room at the much larger group surrounding them. “And all of us. While you don’t even have your weapons. Such a pity.”

To Gaia, the possessed man slyly remarked, “See, you shouldn’t have come in here with a bunch of students. I mean, you’re a bit busy right now to be doing anything else, and we’ll get through that forcefield in a few seconds. Or we can just wait for you to miss one of the turrets. Really, what were you thinking?”

Disabling seven turrets at once as they transported in, Gaia answered the man absently, “I am a teacher at heart. I like to think of everyone as my students. For example, consider this a lesson.”

A being of energy appeared beside the woman, resolving into Sariel. That was followed immediately by the appearance of Apollo, who stepped out of Sean. The man was holding a bag, which he opened up to allow Vulcan to hop out and join his partner. Four more Seosten were right behind him, emerging from Dare, Doug, Scout, and Sands. Each held the weapons that belonged to their respective host, and handed them over as soon as they appeared.

From Haiden and Larissa respectively, Tristan and Vanessa appeared. Both of them held their respective host’s weapons, which they passed along as well. Vanessa followed that up by tossing Columbus’ goggles to him, while Tristan produced Avalon’s gauntlets and Porthos for the girl.

All of that happened in the span of a couple seconds. Then they were all just as armed as the ones who surrounded them, while having added considerably to their numbers.

“Man,” Doug put in, “you guys are not used to people using your own tricks against you.”

Apollo snorted. “You don’t know the half of it, kid.”

“It… it doesn’t matter,” Chauncey retorted, though he seemed somewhat shaken. “You think this is the only people we brought to deal with you, witch? We brought an entire army. Hundreds, just to turn you people into so many smears on the ground.” His hand touched the communication badge on his pocket, and he announced, “Send in the rest of the troops. We’re ending this.”

There was a brief, expectant pause. Then, “What do you mean busy? What attack? Who–Gabriel Prosser’s–”

He stopped talking then, slowly lifting his gaze to look at Gaia.

“That,” the headmistress informed him while disabling another six turrets that popped into existence, “is another lesson.”

“You know,” Apollo remarked, “we will respect any one of you who wants to surrender right now.”

Instead, Chauncey leveled that harpoon gun. “Raise turret generation speed by five hundred percent.”

Instantly, the cannons began appearing much faster and with more at once. Dozens were popping into existence all over the room, generating as fast as Gaia could disable them. Each capable of punching a hole through a starship, and each only prevented from doing so by Gaia’s power.

“She’ll lose track,” Chauncey all-but snarled. “She’ll miss one. In the meantime, the rest of you… open fire,” he snapped. “Break the shield and kill them.

“Hope you guys are ready!” Haiden called, even as the gunfire started.

“Cuz here we go.”

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Before The Vault 41-07

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“Excuse me?” I demanded, only remembering at the last instant not to throw my arms out. It might’ve been hard to pass this for a normal conversation from behind at that point. Torn between staring at the man in front of me or turning to glare up at the shapeshifted figure in the distance, I settled for the former as being less obvious. “What do you mean, they’re taking the vault tonight? They can’t take the vault. They can’t get into it.”

Even as I said it, I knew the words were dumb. It wasn’t like Jophiel and Elisabet would tell me this just for the hell of it. They weren’t making it up. But still… still…

They have to be wrong, Tabbris murmured, putting words to my thoughts. They have to. After everything we’ve been doing, they can’t beat us into the vault…

Yeah, that. Exactly that. It wasn’t–at some point I would stop expecting things to be fair. My eyes found the man’s again even as he began to speak in that hollow-echoey voice that apparently came from being remotely controlled.

“Kushiel and her people have apparently been working to find a way into the vault for weeks now. They have been attempting to break through a… back door of sorts that was placed inside of an Alter hotel by Liesje herself, so that she would not always have to go through Crossroads authority to reach her own vault.”

That made a depressing amount of sense, and I sighed. “Please tell me that it’s at least hard to get into. I mean, obviously since they’ve been trying for weeks. But you said they’re almost through?”

“They will be ready to enter the vault within a few hours,” came the response. “Which is why we must not hesitate. There is no time to waste. You need to have a legitimate way to have gained this information. Which means it must come from this man.”

“After I possess him because he tries to kill me,” I finished for them. “Right, this should be… fun.” I was already dealing with the fact that what should have been a relaxing few days was being cut short again. We’d deal with it. The vault was too important to sit and pout.

“Are you ready?” they asked carefully through the man. “We will yank you over the counter and trigger a magical shield to stop the others. You should try to fight. Make it look real. Eventually, we will give you an opening to possess him. Take enough time to have gotten the information and then render him unconscious. After you step out of him, we will teleport the body away. They can believe that there was an emergency retrieval spell.”

“Right,” I muttered. Behind me, Columbus called out, wanting to know if I was ever going to get my ice cream. It was now or never. “Do it.”

They didn’t waste any time. The next thing I knew, the man’s hand had grabbed the front of my shirt while his other hand found my arm, and I was yanked over the counter. I heard a cry go up behind me, along with the hum of the forcefield popping into place. Then my back hit the nearby wall hard, and I caught a glimpse of a knife coming right for my face. At the last instant, I managed to jerk my head out of the way before the blade was driven through the wall.

They really weren’t kidding about making this look real. With a grunt, I drove my knee into the man’s chest, then rolled out of the way as he took a swing with a knife in his other hand. I went up to one knee, staff in my hand as I swing it at the man. Before it could hit him, however, he twitched a finger and the staff went clattering out of the way.

I threw a ball of noxious gel at the man, but he created some kind of bubble in the air in front of him to catch it. I had no idea if that was a real power of his or something that Jophiel and Elisabet did themselves. But either way, it would help explain why I went for possessing him when it hadn’t exactly been my go-to move.

In the background, I could see Dare, Avalon, and the others at the glowing blue forcefield. They were having a bit of trouble trying to take it down. Which made sense, considering they were dealing with a Committee-level power. I just hoped Jophiel and Elisabet were smart enough to not make it quite that strong.

Either they were, or Wyatt was even better than I thought he was. Because he showed up next, while I was throwing myself backward away from the next swipe from my ‘attacker’ and almost immediately had the shield practically down. I saw it weaken considerably from the first thing he did, flickering a bit. It was enough that the man attacking me actually took a second to glance over his shoulder with clear incredulousness.

Right, had to do this now, or our little plan wasn’t going to work. Wyatt was dealing with the forcefield faster than the Seosten-Committee bonded pair expected, to the point that it actually surprised them. And in that moment, I couldn’t help but be proud of my big brother, even if it did rush our plan a little bit.

But hey, that gave me the perfect opening (which come to think of it, might have been at least part of the point of turning in the first place) to make my move. Which I did, scrambling that way. The knife whipped around and I sidestepped before catching the extended wrist. Tabbris and I both focused on my possession power, as we imagined throwing ourself into the man through the grip on his wrist.

It worked. Suddenly I was seeing the space where I had been. And it must have been just in time, too, because there was a pop as the shield broke and then there was the sound of rushing footsteps. I heard Dare call out a warning, just before a glowing energy blade was suddenly thrust through the man’s back and out his front. I could see it sticking a foot or two out in front of ‘my’ chest. Avalon. Avalon had been going after him too fast to react to the fact that I had already possessed him.

I turned off all our connections to his pain and other things, Tabbris hurriedly put in, just as the man’s body fell. We stayed standing, my body glowing for a moment before going back to normal.

Th-thanks, I managed, the shock of possessing the man an instant before he died making it hard to think straight. I hadn’t actually felt him die, thanks to Tabbris’s quick thinking. But still, that was… a lot.

Was it enough time? I quickly put in, even as Avalon took me by the arm to turn me around, demanding to know if I was okay. The others were all right there too, Dare moving to check the body on the ground.

Yes, yes, Tabbris replied, sounding just as shaken as I felt. It was enough time, it’s okay.

Sure enough, I heard the voice of Elisabet in my head. Good enough, we don’t have to teleport him after all. And it explains why you only got a little bit from him. We’ll tell you what to say.

“Flick!” Avalon’s voice finally penetrated, and I focused on her. “What–”

“We need to go.” That was Dare, glancing around the mall. Deveron was nearby, holding his hand up. I didn’t know what he was doing, but it apparently was keeping all the (literal) bystanders from noticing what had just happened, because no one was reacting to it. They were just walking by, or sitting there with their meals.

“There’ll be more,” Dare announced, looking to Wyatt. “Any other traps?”

His head shook, but he seemed just as focused on me as Avalon was. “Not yet, but we should leave, now. Right now. Are you okay?” The last bit was clearly directed my way.

“Wait, wait,” I started. “There’s something–”

But we were gone. Dare reached down to grab the body, then teleported us out of there. The world spun, and we were suddenly standing in a park we’d passed up the street before coming into the mall. The people around us, naturally, didn’t even notice our unnatural arrival. They just sidestepped and kept walking, one of the guys making a comment about not standing in the middle of the path.

“Flick?” That was Shiori. She had joined Avalon right in front of me. “Flick are you okay? You’re not–”

“I’m okay,” I finally managed. “I’m okay, but we’re not. Our plan isn’t. The vault isn’t!” My eyes snapped around as I pointedly spoke those words.

Well, that got everyone’s attention. They were finally focused on me instead of talking about how we’d been attacked. Dare took a step my way, frowning. “What?”

In the background, I saw Doug and Sean exchanging glances, while Columbus met my gaze intently, worry written across his face. He knew as well as anyone what the Seosten were capable of, and had probably been afraid that something would screw up our plan from the start.

“I saw it in his head,” I started while trying not to hate myself for lying. “He works for Kushiel and they’re going through some back way to get into the vault. They’re like three, maybe four hours from being able to get in there as we speak.”

Good, I heard in my head as Jophiel and Elisabet apparently caught up. Tell them that the Alter hotel is called the Auberge.

The others were all speaking at the same time, and it was hard enough to keep up with just what was being said out loud even before the voice in my head that wasn’t Tabbris was added in. But I had a pretty good idea of what the gist of everyone’s ranting was.

“It’s some Alter hotel called the Auberge,” I supplied while trying very hard to push the image of myself as a puppet out of my head. “Liesje set up some kind of back door into the vault so that she wouldn’t have to go through Crossroads. That’s what they’re using. Apparently they’ve been working on it for a couple weeks. Now they’re just a few hours away.”

“I guess that means the vacation’s over, huh?” Doug muttered before giving a shrug. “It was good while it lasted. I just wish I had time to finish with my pen before they decided to get all ambitious.”

Deveron opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Wyatt abruptly put in, “Why attack you? I mean right now. Why attack you right now? If they’re only a few hours from getting into the vault, why draw attention right this second? It sounds like a trap. Maybe they’re nowhere near getting into the vault and they just made that man think they were so that you would read his mind and we’d all go charging off into their clutches.”

Shit. He had a point. I had to convince them that the information was right, without giving too much away. Which was going to be hard enough with Wyatt to begin with. He had a very good reason to be paranoid, and he wasn’t exactly wrong with his instinct that something was off about all that. What was I supposed to do?

Deveron spoke up while Tabbris and I were both thinking. “Wyatt’s got a point. But we can’t ignore it either. I’ve heard of this Auberge. It’s an Alter hotel that specifically promises to keep its paying guests safe from all threats. That includes Heretics. It jumps around like the Pathmaker, sort of.”

Dare nodded. “I’ve heard of it too. If Liesje was going to have a back entrance, that would make a good place for it. They’ve been around basically forever. It’s a safe, neutral place that Heretics wouldn’t be able to get into without one hell of a fight.”

Shiori grimaced. “So what do we do? If that’s real, we can’t just sit here and let them get into the vault while we twiddle our thumbs.”

“We need to know if they’re actually at the hotel,” Columbus announced. “You know, like spies that can get inside and find out if that part’s true. And maybe distract them until we have time to go in the front.”

Doug looked to him. “But who’s going to be able to do that, let alone willing? Like they said, no Heretics, and I’m pretty sure they can tell.”

Coughing once, Sean pointed out, “I already kind of hate myself for saying this, but there’s Roxa’s pack. She can’t do it herself, because like you said, Heretic. But the rest of her pack have spent basically every day since she disappeared the first time wanting to have a way to help. I promised I’d let them know if there was anything.”

Sands looked to him. “Sending a pack of werewolves in to stake out the hotel place and let us know if Kushiel and her lackeys are there?”

“We’ve done that kind of thing before,” Deveron quietly put in. “In the old rebellion, I mean. You use what you’ve got, and werewolves don’t set off the ‘that’s a Heretic’ alert Alters get when they look at one of us. They’ve also got really good senses. If anyone can find that bitch in a confined space, it’s a werewolf.”

Scout spoke up then. “But they’re all werewolves.”

Sands was nodding. “She means if they get cornered, they don’t have extra tricks like Heretics do. If they’re ready to deal with one werewolf, they can deal with all of them. I mean, not a whole horde or anything, but you know what I mean. They could get in trouble really fast.”

Shiori raised her hand. “What if they’re not alone?” As everyone looked to her, the girl went on. “They’ve been visiting the camp lately. Roxa took them. They went so that the Seosten could practice with them.”

I blinked once. “You mean send the werewolves in there with Seosten possessors to be back up.”

She shrugged. “We were planning on doing basically the same thing with the actual trip to the vault, so why not use it now?”

Dare grimaced. “This is all academic. We don’t even know that they will agree to go in there.”

“Trust me,” Sean insisted, “I know them. They’ll agree. In fact, they might just eat me if I don’t give them the chance.”

“And we don’t have time to come up with anything else,” I pointed out. “We only have a few hours to deal with this. Is that even enough time to get them here? Or, you know, there? Wherever the hotel is now. Which is another thing we need to work out.”

Dare nodded. “With Berlin it is. If they agreed to it, we can pair them with Seosten and send them in.”

“Senny too.” That was Shiori, of course. She was looking up from her phone. “She’s with them right now. Her and her little group, I mean. Oh, and uhh, something happened with Theia and Abigail and Miranda and all that, but they said they’ll tell you about it later. The point is, they’re in.”

“As are my people.” The new voice came from Athena, as the woman appeared with Gaia at her side. Dare had obviously been communicating with the latter this whole time. “We can help find Kushiel and hit her from behind while she is focused on getting through to that vault.”

Doug looked a little hesitant to speak up, but finally asked, “What about all the security magic they’ll have in there? Both the hotel and Kushiel, I mean. Can your people break through it if they have to?”

“I can.” Wyatt’s voice was as calm and centered as I had ever heard him. He straightened up as much as he could. His pronounced Adam’s apple bobbed a little as he continued. “I can go in with them and help get through the security magic.”

“Uh,” Columbus started, “What about that whole ‘them noticing that you’re a Heretic’ problem?”

Wyatt scoffed at him. “As if one of the first things I did wasn’t finding a way to disable that obvious weakness. If I don’t want them to know that I’m a Heretic, they won’t. And if I don’t want them to recognize me, they won’t do that either.”

It was my turn to speak up then. Which Gaia seemed to be expecting, considering the fact that she was already looking at me. “He’s not the only one who can say that.”

That made both Avalon and Shiori round on me, each blurting, “No!”

Wincing, I held up both hands. “Guys, they’re going to need all the help they can get. Look at everything I’ve gotten this year. I don’t ping as a Heretic unless I use my powers. I can shapeshift my face and hair, so they won’t recognize me. Jaq and Gus, even Marian, can all spy on places I can’t get to. I can turn into a lion and keep up with the actual weres. It’s a building, do you have any idea how fast I can travel through the wood in it? I can hit hard, and they won’t know who or what they’re dealing with until it’s too late.”

I looked toward Shiori, then Deveron. “I can help Asenath, and Wyatt.”

Finally, I looked to Avalon. “ I can help you. We can hit them from behind and distract them enough for you guys to get in through the front.”

“And she won’t be alone,” Deveron put in. “I can hide what I am too.” Pausing, he added. “And I’m not letting my son and step-daughter go in that place without me.”

“Magic?” That was Sean, wincing. “You might be able to shapeshift, but they probably have spells to check for that sort of thing. I mean, if they’re supposed to be this competent.”

Wyatt put a hand on my shoulder. “They have magic to detect it. I have better magic to hide it.”

“See guys?” I looked to my girls apologetically. “This is the best play. I can do more good behind the lines, at the back door in the hotel, than at the front door vault with you. All these powers, being able to hide being a Heretic, shapeshifting, having a brother who can beat their security? This is the right thing for me to be doing right now. It’s where I should be.”

Avalon looked like she was still going to argue, but Gaia spoke up first. “She is right. The Auberge is where she can help the most. They will need her. They will need everything they can get. Just as we will need to hurry if we are going to be ready in time to get into the vault several days ahead of schedule.”

Avalon cringed, stepping over to take me into a tight hug. Her voice was soft. “I don’t care how much sense it makes, I hate this.”

Shiori joined us, agreeing, “Me too.”

I hugged them both, making them promise to stay together and watch each other’s backs. They spoke directly to Tabbris, making both of us promise to stay as safe as possible and not to do anything too stupid.

The real problem was, there wasn’t time to argue. There wasn’t time to come up with a better plan, or even to really appreciate how dangerous this is going to be. We all had to keep moving, no matter how much we hated the idea of splitting up. This was the best that we had, the best we could do.

It was all coming down to this. We’d expected to have a few more days, but honestly, the Seosten screwing that up with their own plans pretty much went exactly with the rest of the year, didn’t it?

Either way, this was it. Everything that had been going on with Avalon this whole year, even her entire life and stretching back beyond that, came down to these next few hours. Either we would get into that vault and win.

Or we would lose.

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Before The Vault 41-06

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“This way, guys, this way!” Ahead of me and about forty or so of my classmates, Nevada walked backwards to watch us while beckoning with both hands over her head for our attention. Which, considering the way she was… err… bouncing with each enthusiastic step, she already had the complete and undivided focus of about half the students. Though it was questionable if they’d be able to repeat anything she said. I had already seen one guy need to be stopped from walking into a lamppost when she’d jumped up and down earlier.

It had been about an hour since we’d gone with Broker to get our new toys sorted out. Now I had the bracelet linked to Jaq and Gus, meaning I could not only see through their eyes at any point, but also either teleport them back to me or teleport myself to where they were, within a mile. That was bound to be useful.

Avalon had her lizard, and she had decided to stick with the name Porthos (for the musketeer, of course). He was currently riding on her shoulder. Doug was going to be meeting with Broker a couple more times before we left to talk about the idea he apparently had for his pen, and the man had also promised once more to look into getting Columbus a meeting with Harrison Fredericks.

With Sands and Scout not really wanting to take anything from him, that left Sean and Vulcan. Or rather, Sean, Vulcan, and Vulcan Junior. VJ, as Sean was calling him, wasn’t actually another full cyberform at all. Or at least… mostly not. VJ was a drone of sorts. He basically looked like a sleek little backpack that attached to Vulcan. That was his default position, mounted to Vulcan’s back. From there, he could work as a partner to the dog himself by projecting a forcefield around them as well as producing several different weapons and tools.

VJ could also separate from Vulcan to fly off on his own, just like a drone. He had limited artificial intelligence mostly linking him to Vulcan. The way Broker had explained it was that VJ was mostly running off of a somewhat simplified copy of Vulcan’s own intelligence. They were linked, sort of like when Miranda would duplicate herself and have two hers in a room.

Finally, Sean could hold VJ. At that point, the little drone could transform into three modes: a shield, a sword, and a rifle. This allowed Sean to have a secondary weapon beyond picking up Vulcan.

So that was the upgrades that we had gotten. Which would almost certainly all end up being useful before this trip was over. Actually, I was going to go ahead and say they would definitely be useful. I just hoped they were useful enough.

And now we were with several other teams, as Nevada took us on an official tour of the underground tunnel known as J Street. In another hour or so we would have dinner with the rest of the school in some kind of converted ballroom thing, then have a dance to celebrate the first night of our field trip. Tomorrow all of the students who had parents who weren’t ‘in the knowledge’ would meet up with them for a mundane (but still no doubt really interesting) tour around the city, followed by another dinner (this one equally suited for Bystander families). Some academic awards would be presented, and there would be a few speeches. People who didn’t have Bystander family coming didn’t have to go, but they were encouraged to think about doing so, as having more students around would make things look more realistic.

“Right, everyone look to your left,” Nevada started before correcting herself. “Wait, strike that, reverse it. Left, everyone look to your right.” Flashing a perfect, dazzling smile, she gestured that way. “See the building there with the pillars all along the front and the lion statues? That’s the main headquarters and training center for the Bow Street Runners.”

I looked that way, taking in the place. In the distance near the doors, I could actually see the tall, lanky figure of Tribald Kine standing there talking with a few other people. One of them was a distinguished looking elderly gentleman with white hair who almost looked like he could have been played by Malcolm McDowell, while the other two were a Hispanic couple. From the look of things, the conversation was pretty heated.

“Wow, isn’t that that Tribald guy?” Sands asked from beside me. “He’s moving up in the world if he’s got Bell’s ear.”

“Bell?” I echoed, glancing back to her.

She indicated the elderly guy that I had noticed. “Joseph Bell. He’s the guy who runs the Runners. I mean, the highest up that isn’t a member of the Committee. Calafia actually oversees them, but Bell runs the day to day stuff.”

“Bell… Bell… Joseph Bell, I know that name,” I murmured under my breath. Ahead, Nevada was talking about some of the facts about how the Runners were formed, when they became a Heretic-only organization, and all that.

“Sherlock Holmes.” That was Columbus, the boy looking to me as he spoke. “Joseph Bell was the main inspiration that Arthur Conan Doyle used when he created Sherlock Holmes. He was a surgeon who was really good at diagnosing people through observation. He could like… look at a random person on the street, watch them for a minute, and tell you all this stuff about them. Their job, things they’d done recently, stuff like that. He’s kind of one of the fathers of forensic science. And that was all as a Bystander.”

Whistling low, I grinned at the boy. “Wow, all that off the top of your head?”

He coughed a bit self-consciously. “I uhh, did a project on him back in eighth grade.”

“Well, thank your eighth grade history teacher for me,” I replied as we moved on with the rest of the group. “I wonder what Tribald’s talking with the big boss about then. And who the other two were. Other Runners? It looked like they were all arguing.”

Before I could make any kind of guess, Sean finally spoke up, his voice quiet. “They aren’t Runners.”

By that point, Nevada was telling us something about the next building down the line, but my attention was on my teammate. “Err, they’re not? How do you–oh, you know th–wait.” My head snapped around, looking back that way to try and see them again. It was a failed endeavor. “Are you saying they’re–”

“Yeah,” Sean confirmed flatly. “They’re my parents. Both of them.”

“Really?” That was Harper, who had come alongside us close enough to hear that. Now she brightened, looking to him. “Hey, I bet Nevada’d let you go say hi real quick.”

Raising one shoulder in a shrug, the boy replied, “They know where I am. Just like they knew where I was during Family Day, and every other day. Actually, that’s not fair. They might’ve forgotten I exist. But you know, either way.”

Wincing, I tried to think of something to say. But Shiori spoke first. “If they’re talking to Bell, maybe they’re trying to find out the truth about what happened back then. Maybe they–”

“Don’t.” Sean shook his head. “I don’t need a fantasy of who my parents are or what they’re doing. I had that for a long time. They’re not abusive, they’re not monsters. They’re just not around. They have their own lives and I don’t… need to force myself into them.”

“Well, they’re still jerks,” Harper put in. “But I guess you don’t have to get back at them or anything. I mean, eventually they’ll figure out that they don’t even know their son. And since I kinda do, I’m pretty sure that’ll be like… the worst punishment anyone could ever dream up.”

The way she said that made me blink that way, curious about her tone. But the pink-haired girl had already disappeared back into the crowd with a blurted word about something cute that another girl was wearing. Then we continued on, Sean never looking back.

Still, what were his parents doing back there with Tribald and Joseph Bell? I wasn’t even sure what their jobs were or why they were so busy, let alone if those jobs would give them any valid reason to interact with the head of the Runners. It was… curious. I was curious.

But hey, at least Sean’s parents had almost attended one of his school events. Even if it was from a distance and by accident.

******

“I wonder what kind of magic makes this place bright during the daytime.”

It was late that night, long after the others had gone to bed. I was standing out on the now-dark street in front of the inn, leaning against a fence post with my notebook in hand as I watched the much less busy surrounding area. There were still people around, but everything was so much calmer and just… slower than it had been that afternoon. Through the lights cast by the streetlamps, I mostly saw couples out for a stroll, or people like me, by themselves.

Well, I wasn’t really by myself, of course. Tabbris was there with me. Literally with me, since neither of us were stupid enough to have her jump out.

I bet it’s–behind you.

Belatedly realizing that the last half of that was the girl using my item-sense to warn me of someone’s approach, I turned to look that way, only to see someone who could only have set it off if he wanted me to know that he was there.

“Counselor Ruthers,” I quickly spoke while turning that way more fully. “I hope you’re not here to bust me for not being in bed after curfew. Because not only am I allowed, that also seems like something way under your paygrade. Do you get paid?” While speaking, I carefully tucked the notebook in my hand away inside my jacket.

The gruff man met my gaze while simply replying, “My reward is a sense of pride and accomplishment. And the knowledge that humanity will not be overrun by monsters.” Pausing then, he added, “But no, I did not come to bust you, Miss… Chambers. I… wanted to tell you that I’m–” He stopped, clearing his throat before forcing the words out. “I am… sorry that we haven’t found your father yet. We do believe that he might be with your mother.”

I met his gaze without blinking. “So you think that we were right about what we talked about awhile ago, that she was recruited by some other Heretic group or something and that’s why she never came back. And now she, what, had my dad kidnapped? Why?”

“Or enemies of hers did,” Ruthers conceded. “All I know is that your mother is probably involved in this somehow.”

“I mean, it wouldn’t surprise me,” I forced myself to say, drawing upon years of bitterness to inject it into my voice. “She took herself out of my life and abandoned me for years, why not take my dad away too, just to be a complete bitch?”

Yeah, that was hard to say. But I knew that if I didn’t go all out there and make myself sound like I despised my mother as much as possible, Ruthers would know something was up, rather than just suspect it.

Sure enough, the man was clearly watching me closely. After a moment, he finally spoke again. “We think she may try to recruit you as well… now that you are, ah, useful to her.”

I really wanna punch him, Tabbris murmured in my head. I really, really wanna punch him.

Me too, I replied silently before speaking aloud. “Are you trying to ask if she’s approached me already, Counselor Ruthers? Because you should just do that.”

“Has she?” His voice was flat and gruff. “No one would blame you for at least talking to her. After all, she is your–”

“My mother hasn’t spoken to me,” I interrupted. My heart jumped at the thought of interrupting a man that could turn me into ashes with a thought. But hey, it’s not like it was the first time that year that I’d done that. “Believe me, if I’d heard from my mother this year, I’d tell you about it. She hasn’t said a single word to me.”  

Technical truths are the best truths, Tabbris noted.

Ruthers raised an eyebrow then, the timing so perfect that it almost made me paranoid that he’d heard the Seosten girl. But the man just said, “If your father has been taken by your mother or the people whom she disappeared with, it’s possible that he may have been… brainwashed to their way of thinking. What if he attempts to contact you?”

Knowing he wouldn’t buy any dismissive answer, I went with a simple, “He’s my dad, Counselor. If he contacts me, I’ll want to talk to him. He didn’t abandon me for years to go join some cult or whatever. If he wants to talk to me, I’m not going to say no.”

“Fair answer,” Ruthers conceded, looking thoughtful at that before adding, “I do ask that you let someone know. Do not accept any kind of… private contact. Even if it’s…” He paused briefly, seeming to force the words out. “Even if it’s Headmistress Sinclaire, make certain that someone knows. You… you have a great deal of potential, Miss Chambers. I would hate to see it lost because you trusted the wrong people.”

Oh, it was very tempting to get into what kind of experiences he’d had in trusting the wrong people. Instead, I just nodded. “I want to find my dad, but I’m not stupid. If he contacts me, I won’t even know if he’s doing it of… of his own volition. I’ll make sure the headmistress knows what’s going on.”

The man met my gaze for a silent moment that went on just long enough to become a little too uncomfortable, before he finally spoke. “I do hope that’s true, and that we find your father soon. This war with the monsters that plague our world has destroyed far too many innocents.”

Well, that much I could definitely agree with the man on. In fact, I was pretty sure that truer words had never, in the history of this planet, been spoken.

******

The next day was fun. Like… actually fun. We were allowed to tour DC, so my team (with an escort of Deveron and Professor Dare) went out for most of the morning and early afternoon. We hit all the spots we could, seeing several museums and the standard hotspots like the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. We had lunch at one of the local parks, watching some birds on the water while Doug actually played one of the old men nearby at chess (losing more than he won, but still winning a couple times). Then Porthos (whom anyone watching just saw as a normal pet lizard) challenged Vulcan to a game of frisbee, and we all took turns throwing for awhile as the two chased after it. For a tiny lizard, Porthos could really haul his little butt when he wanted to.

Eventually, Professor Dare even helped install a little strap on top of the frisbee that Jaq and Gus could take turns being attached to, soaring out there as the frisbee was hurled. Then I would use my new wristband thing to teleport the little guy back just as it was caught by Vulcan or Porthos. They’d bring it back, Vulcan with his mouth or Porthos by riding it like a wheel as he ran along the top of it, and we’d repeat the whole thing again with the other mouse having a turn.

The point was, it was fun. After spending all that time in the park, Shiori took a break from her own team and joined up with us. We went on another couple tours in the afternoon, including a trip through the nearest mall to do a little shopping, before stopping in the food court for ice cream.

I was waiting near the counter to finally get mine, while the others sat at a table nearby, having already received theirs. Tabbris and I were internally debating the merits of sprinkles versus no sprinkles when the teenager behind the counter drew my attention. He had my ice cream cup in his hand.

“Oh, thanks,” I started while reaching for it. Before I could grab the treat, however, the boy spoke in a hushed voice that had an odd buzzing/echoey effect to it.

“Miss Chambers.”

My eyes snapped up at that, my hand moving to my belt. “Wha–?”

“Miss Chambers,” the teenage boy repeated in that same buzzy echo voice before nodding past me. “Look at us.”

Confused, I squinted at him before glancing over my shoulder. My eyes scanned the crowd before settling on one particular figure watching me from the far end of the food court, away from everyone else.

Jophiel. Well, Elisabet at least. I assumed it was both of them. As soon as I caught sight of the woman, her form changed to look like someone completely different. Probably to avoid someone like Dare, who was right at the nearby table with the others, from recognizing her.

“You may speak normally,” the buzzing-voiced teenager announced. “Virginia Dare and the others will not notice as long as you face away from them.”

Why… why are they talking to us like this? Tabbris hesitantly put in.

That was a good question, so I asked it. Turning back to the boy, I whispered, “What are you doing? Why are you puppeting some innocent minimum wage kid to talk to us instead of doing it in my head? And I feel like I should be more surprised that you can puppet some guy from across the room, but I’m really not.”

“Innocent?” There was derision in the boy’s voice along with the humming. “Hardly. He is a spy for Kushiel, one of several sent to surreptitiously keep an eye on you and your group. If you look in the back room of this place, you will find the other employees dead in the freezer. He is not innocent.”

“Wha–dead? They’re dead, innocent people are dead and you just–”

“We arrived too late to do anything about it,” came the hard response. “We were following your party and he had already set himself up before our arrival. Think what you will of us, Miss Chambers, but given the opportunity to prevent the murder of two innocent civilians, we would have done so.”

“What–so he was… what, here to try to kill us?” I demanded. Then my eyes widened. “And you let the others get ice cream fr–”

“Calm yourself, they are fine,” Jophiel-Elisabet-Fake-Ice Cream Guy snapped. “His job was only to watch, not to harm. But we need you to make it seem as though he meant to harm you. We need you to make it seem as though he meant to kill you.”

Well now I was even more confused. “Wait… what?”

“There is a problem with the vault,” they informed me simply. “You need to be able to tell the others about it, but they will ask where the information came from. You must make it look as though this man attacked you, and possess him. Then tell them that you got the information that way.”

“Information–problem with the vault?” They wanted me to be able to tell Dare and Gaia about something with the vault without giving away that it came from them. “What–what problem? We’re not even going there for another few days.”

That is the problem, Miss Chambers,” they replied. “You don’t have a few days.

“Kushiel and her ilk will be taking the vault tonight.”  

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Before The Vault 41-05

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Please note, there was a special bonus chapter posted yesterday focusing on Joselyn’s two Edge visions. If you haven’t read that, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

After getting settled in, we were released in our teams and allowed to explore the underground tunnel that made up J Street. We couldn’t go up into the main city just yet (well, the older students could, the first years like us were the only ones who couldn’t), but we could walk around down here and sightsee a little bit before the special dinner that Gaia had apparently arranged.

Freshmen like us were the only ones staying at Mrs. Brickswell’s inn. The older grades had other arrangements. Still, even though there were only about a hundred of us there instead of three or four times that number, the lobby was pretty crowded as Columbus, Scout, Sands, Avalon, Doug, Sean, and I made our way out.

The seven of us were one too many for a regular team, but it was close enough. Gordon and Jazz were staying at the Atherby camp for the time being, neither wanting to advertise their return for Crossroads just yet (if ever, I still wasn’t sure how that was going to go). And Roxa had refused to use the choker to hide who she was so that she could come back to Crossroads, choosing instead to stick with her pack. Which I couldn’t honestly blame her for.

Which left the seven of us to be a team finishing out the year. I hoped it stayed seven by the end. And that was a thought that I’d immediately wanted to drive a stake into my brain (a weirdly violent thought in and of itself) for having. You’d think I’d learn at some point.

Stepping out of that deceptively small-looking building was like emerging into another world. The street was even busier now, with people rushing back and forth in every direction. And not just walking either. I saw some floating or flying, and others who were literally running through the crowd, apparently using intangibility powers. Or others who were shrinking down to get through it. I even saw one guy using a flying hoverboard like Gidget’s alternate form to go over people, and another who surrounded herself with some kind of blue bubble, sank into the ground, then popped back up on the far side of a particularly crowded spot before dismissing the bubble.

“Claustrophobic, Miss?” The voice caught my attention, and I blinked over before looking down as my eyes finally found a young boy. He looked to be about nine or so, with brown hair and these big eyes. In his hands, the kid was holding a box full of what looked like sunglasses.

“If any of you are claustrophobic,” the boy continued, “my mom’s glasses can help! Only six enners each, an’ she makes them herself! Go ahead, try one!”

He was so enthusiastic about it, I kind of wanted to see what he was talking about. Still, I looked to the others first. What do you think, partner?

Sands, Scout, and Sean all gave me encouraging nods, so I picked up one of the sunglasses. There was a design on the rims, and I squinted at it.

I think it’s safe, Tabbris hesitantly assured me. It’s just a vision spell, um, as far as I can tell. And look, there’s other people wearing them.

So, I shrugged before slipping the sunglasses on. As I did so, the boy advised, “Activation word’s Trolley.”

“Okay, uh, trolley?” I started. As I said the word, nothing happened.

Sands laughed. “No, Flick. Put your hand on the glasses and say the word while you give it a little oomph. Like any other enchanted item. Most of the spell’s been done already, you just need to turn it on.”

That made a lot more sense, and I blushed a little while following her instructions. With my finger against the rim of the glasses, I spoke the word again while pushing a little energy into it.

The second I did so, the tunnel suddenly looked different. Actually, it didn’t look like a tunnel. The rock walls and ceiling disappeared, leaving open sky above. There were even birds up there. And as for the walls, they were replaced with what looked like an entire cityscape. Buildings rose in every direction. Everything looked so open.

Gasping, I took the glasses off. Back to a rock tunnel. Then I put them on again. Entire city.

“Oh, that’s cool. Makes it look like we’re above ground.” Handing them off to the others to try, I looked to the boy. “Your mom makes those?”

“Like I said,” the kid confirmed, “it’s for the claustrophobic ones. Mom’s really good with the vision spells like that. She sells other ones, but these are for the tourists. Six enners, an’ if you need a recharge after they’re out, it’s just one per.”

“Well, see, I don’t exactly know what–” I started to say that I didn’t know what an enner was, but Sands stepped past me. “I’ve got it,” she promised. “I don’t think we need them, but they still might be a cool toy.”

I had a lot of questions, including what she was giving him. But even as my mouth opened to ask, something else caught my eye. Just across the street there was a man with several cyberforms around him. One was a monkey sitting on his left shoulder with its metal tail curled around his arm, while his other shoulder was occupied by another that was some kind of cat. At his feet were three more cyberforms: a Saint Bernard, a raccoon, and a lizard that was skittering around the other two.

“He’s got a lot of little friends,” I pointed out while reaching into my pocket to take out Jaq and Gus so they could see. “What do you think, guys, builder or collector?”

Avalon, who had stepped up beside me to see what I was looking at, remarked, “Builder. Definitely a builder. Or someone he knows is. Either way, he’s probably selling them.”

My mouth opened to ask something else, but the man had spotted us watching him. Pointing, he came closer while giving us a broad smile. As he approached, I took a second to examine him more than all his distracting metallic animals. The guy was just under six feet tall, with long clearly dyed red hair that had been tied into a bunch of braids. His skin was very dark, and he wore a gray trench coat over a black shirt and cargo pants. His eyes, I noticed, were very bright, almost neon blue. Clearly unnatural, but I didn’t know if it was a power, a spell, or just contacts.

“I knew it,” the man announced as he neared us. “I knew it, knew it, knew it. I always recognize my own work. Doesn’t matter if it’s two inches away or a mile, I can always spot my stuff.” Looking up to me then, he added, “Name’s Broker. Least that’s what they call me. See it’s funny, cuz I make things not broke. And then I sell them.”

Jaq and Gus were chittering, dancing around on my hand and arm. They didn’t seem upset or worried, though. Instead, the pair were clearly excited.

“Err, you built these guys?” I asked curiously, my eyes shifting toward the other cyberforms. The monkey on the man’s shoulder was watching me closely, its intelligent eyes almost unnerving. On the other hand, after what happened with my mother, I kind of had a thing for trusting monkeys.

“Built them?” the man echoed, shaking his head. “Nope, sorry. I just fixed them up. Found them after a battle all smashed to pieces, so I put them back together again. Took a good long while and we really got to know each other. Didn’t we, Bill?” As he spoke, the guy put a hand out close to Jaq so that the little mouse could sniff it.

“Bill?” Belatedly, I understood. “Let me guess, that one was Ted.”

With a grin, Broker nodded. “Righteo. You probably call them something else. But then… you weren’t the one I sold them to. Least not unless you went all in on a shapeshifting power.”

Flushing a little, I shook my head. “Nope, that–err, here.” Extending my hand, I urged my little mice friends, “Go ahead and see him, guys.” As they hopped over and ran up Broker’s arm to chitter at him, I went on. “The guy you sold them to, was his name Doxer?”

“Doxer? Nah.” Broker shook his head while offering the mice a few small bits of metal that they happily gobbled up. “But that sounds like a Garden name, and I did sell them to one of their guys. Them and a few others.”

By that point, Sean and Vulcan had come closer, the latter moving to sniff the Saint Bernard, which sniffed him back. The two cyberform canines circled each other curiously, before each gave a happy bark. Vulcan lowered his head and the lizard scrambled up onto him. Then he snapped his head up again, sending the lizard flying to land on the other dog’s back. The lizard moved up to the Saint Bernard’s head then, which lowered itself down a bit before snapping up to send it flying back over to Vulcan. They continued in that vein.

“So, what do you call them?” Broker asked idly while scratching under their noses.

“This is Jaq,” I started, “and that’s Gus.”

“Ooh, went with Cinderella, huh?” He grinned at me, showing a full mouth of glittering golden teeth. “Nice choice, they’re even actual mice.”

Impressed by the fact that he actually gotten that reference, as well as the one about Bill and Ted that he made earlier, I remarked, “Were you actually born into the Heretics? Because you seemed pretty pop culture savvy.”

“You should see my Spongebob collection,” Broker teased with a wink. “But no, I was born and raised a Heretic. I just happen to really like keeping my head in the Bystander world. But not so much that I don’t need to make a living in the Heretic way. So, what do you say I give you a little upgrade for these guys? Since you’re so nice to them, I’ll even throw in a discount. Won’t cost you nearly as many enners as it would if you took them into a shop.”

My mouth open to questions that term again, but Columbus beat me to the punch. “The kid over there said that word too, what’s an enner?”

Sands, who had returned from buying the glasses, answered that one. “Enner. Short for energy. It’s how Heretics out in the real world barter for goods or services. We needed a currency that actually mattered to us, you know? So they made up enners. Basically, they are these blank cards that you put your energy into for spells. It’s not a spell by itself, but you put the power into it and the card holds it. When someone else takes the card they can use that energy to power their own spells. It’s effort and energy from yourself that you put into a card. That’s why they have value, because people like to use them for magic that they don’t want to spend the effort on themselves. Or for things that require ongoing power or recharging.”

Okay, that made sense. Still, I had to shake my head. “Sorry, as you could probably have guessed from that, I’ve never even heard of these things before. So I definitely don’t have any.”

But it does sound like stuff that you’d be really good at making, I pointed out inwardly, sensing Tabbris’s embarrassment.

Sands shrugged. “Mom was showing Scout and me how to make them while we were on our trip, so I’ve got a few still, but probably not enough to get cyberform upgrades.”

“I’ll take care of it.” The announcement came from behind us, as Deveron approached. He gave me a wink. “Consider it an end-of-year mentor gift. So what kind of upgrade are we talking about here?”

Broker gave Deveron a broad, literally golden smile. “Oh, I think I have something perfect in mind. I see you’ve already had someone do some work on them,” he added to me. “Looks like Nevada’s work, right? I heard they brought her on to take up Zedekiah’s old job.”

Expression sobering then, he quietly lamented, “Too bad about him. He was a good guy. Taught me a lot. I uhh–” He swallowed hard, seeming to get lost in memories for a moment before shaking himself. “Err, right. Improvements. I imagine you don’t want to lose them for even a few days?”

Biting my lip, I nodded. “I kinda need my little buddies. And considering how often things seem to blow up, not having them for a few days out here is… probably a bad idea.”

“Ah,” Broker replied dryly, “you’re one of the busy students, huh? Yeah, that tracks. I do have something though. It’s more of a programming update and a new toy for you. See this–ahh, where the hell did I…” Patting down his pockets, the man paused before snapping his fingers as he looked toward where the monkey had joined Vulcan and the others. “CG, run back and fetch the case, would you?”

Briefly saluting with his tail, the mechanical monkey launched himself up straight from the ground to Broker’s arm before leaping from there to a passing man’s shoulder, making his way over and through the crowd quickly.

While waiting for him to get back, I looked over to the others. Doug had picked up the lizard, which ran all the way up his arm before leaping over to where Avalon was. For her part, the girl reacted by picking him off her arm by his tail. She held him up close enough for me to get a good look. I wasn’t an expert in lizards or anything, but he basically looked like a silver gecko.

And then his tail broke off. As Avalon was holding him up by it, the tail abruptly snapped right off, letting the rest of the little lizard fall to land on her other arm.

No, it didn’t break, see?

Tabbris was right, I realized. The tail, like a normal gecko’s, had popped off by design. In this case, however, it was slightly different. Mainly because as the lizard landed on Avalon’s arm, he popped up onto his two back legs before snatching his tail from her hand. The tail itself had flattened in that time, sharp metal edges appearing along the sides.

The way the lizard held his suddenly sharpened tail, it was like–

“It’s a sword!” That was Doug, blurting out loud. “His tail pops off and turns into a sword?”

As if to confirm that, the lizard danced back and forth on Avalon’s arm, swiping his tail-blade like a swashbuckler while making a challenging noise.

“Yup,” Broker confirmed, “Porthos is a bit of a show-off. Here, I’ll put him away.” He started to reach for the lizard.

“I’ll take him!” Avalon’s words came in a blurted rush, apparently before she even knew she was going to say it. She reflexively drew back from the man’s reaching arm, already flushing a bit. “I mean… what do you want for him?”

“Oh, kid, uh…” The man looked a little uncertain. “Full Cyberforms are pretty expensive, even little ones. I’d give you the best deal I can, but I couldn’t let him go for less than a thousand. Even that’s just a little over covering time spent fixing him up.” He genuinely looked regretful that he couldn’t just give her the cyberform, which I understood completely. Granted, she was my girlfriend, but still. Seeing the way she was actually interested in the little guy made me want to buy him for her myself, and I still didn’t have any of the so-called ‘enner’ that they used.

I saw the other girl warring with herself a bit, but even as her mouth opened, Deveron spoke up. “Don’t worry, I’ve got that one too. Still your mentor too, right?”

“I don’t want you buying things for me,” Avalon reflexively snapped, though she seemed torn.

Deveron, for his part, clearly understood. “You’re not. You know what the money is. Make some, save them up, pay me back when you can. But it’s stupid to wait until you have it, then try to track him down again and hope he’s still got this specific one. I’ll put down the money now, you work it out when you can.”

She still looked conflicted, but let it go as she stared at the lizard on her arm. Porthos, as he was apparently called, had reattached his tail and fallen back onto all fours to look back and forth between Avalon and Broker while making a soft noise that sounded like a curious chirp.

“Pretty loaded for a student yourself there, Mr….?” Broker prompted curiously.

“Adams,” came the response. “Deveron Adams. And let’s just say I know how to do favors for people.”

“Hey, works for me.” Shrugging, the cyberform salesman and repair guy looked to Avalon. “I’ll take you through the bonding process and show you how to convert him to his handgun form. If you want to change his name, we can do that too. And for you…” His eyes moved to me then. “Here.”

Reaching down to the case that the monkey had brought back by that point, Broker produced some kind of metal bracelet. “Here’s the deal. I install a programming update to your little friends there. Then you put this thing on. See how it’s got a red button on this side and a blue button on the other? You press the red button while saying one or both of their names, and it’ll take them from wherever they are and instantly transport them to your hand. Which is kind of neat, but kind of a parlor trick. The real treat is the other half of it. That blue button, you press that and say one of their names and it’ll transport you to where they are. You know, provided it’s within about a mile. Sorry, the range is a bit limited that way.”

My eyes had widened by that point. “You mean… I could send them into a place I couldn’t get through, then transport myself to them?”

“Pretty much, yeah,” Broker confirmed. “Actually, that’s the other part. You hold both buttons down together and say one of their names and you’ll be able to see through their eyes and hear what they hear. You know, so you know what you’re getting into. You can give them orders that way too.”

“Wow, that’s… wow.” My mouth opened and shut. “Yeah, that does sound useful.”

“I thought it might,” the man replied with a wink. “Okay, so that’s one update for you, and Porthos here for you. Anyone else? Should we see how much of a dent we can throw into Mr. Adams’ wallet if he’s so accommodating?”

Douglas and Columbus both raised their hands, the former speaking first. “I don’t–uhh, I don’t think I need Deveron’s help. Not buying a cyberform or anything. Actually, I was going to ask if you’d help me with an idea I had for my construct-pen. I had a few ideas, I’m just not sure how to go about it. I could pay you for your time.”

“Hey, you got it, kid.” Broker gave him a thumbs up. “We’ll see what we can do. And you?”

“I’m not actually… buying anything either,” Columbus replied carefully. “I was… you know Harrison Fredericks, right? I was wondering if you could… introduce me. I just… I’d kind of like to talk to him sometime. On his schedule. If–if there’s anything you could do.”

“Huh.” Broker looked hesitant. “Let’s… tell you what, I’ll go ahead and pass the message along. Fredericks and I don’t exactly spend a lot of time together anymore, but I can talk to him. I’ll see if he’s got any time to meet with you while you’re here and let you know.”

I had no idea why Columbus wanted to talk to Harrison Fredericks. Still, I wasn’t going to question him about it right there. I could tell, however, that the others were just as curious.

“Right, if that’s all settled,” Broker gestured. “Why don’t we step back over here to my shop and we’ll get you sorted out. I’ll fix up the lovely ladies with their new toys, and then we’ll see what we can do for… ahh…”

“Doug,” the first boy in question supplied for him. “My name’s Doug.”

“And Columbus,” the other added.  

“Doug! Doug and Columbus.” Broker snapped his fingers, blinking over at Vulcan. “And this one?” Looking to Sean, he added, “Are we sure we don’t want any kind of update? Eh, come on, we’ll talk about it on the way. We’ve got a few options, I’ll show you around the shop and you can decide. Some of the big ones might take a bit, but they’ll be worth it.”

Sean looked uncertain, resting his hand on his dog’s head. But in the end, he shrugged and joined us as we followed the man.

“You know,” I started with a glance toward Avalon and her new little lizard friend, who was riding on her shoulder. “If you’re gonna rename him, you should really go with Ahhh!”

“Ahhh?” she echoed, frowning before a look of realization crossed her face. “Oh, no.”

“Because then,” I continued with a grin, “when I introduce both my girlfriends’ pets–”

“Don’t say it,” she warned.

“People’ll think they need to bless me–” I pressed on.

“I’m warning you.”

“Because I’ll say–”

“One more word–”

“Ahhh-choo!”

“…. God damn it, Chambers.”

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Before The Vault 41-04

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“Come along, please. Keep up, let’s get through this with as little dawdling as possible, please.” Professor Ross, our elderly Amazonian professor who focused on teaching Heretical History, led me and about thirty other students along the sidewalk in the middle of Washington DC itself. The woman cast a glance back to us from the front of the group. “I know it’s quite interesting, and I promise you’ll have a chance to spread out and explore later. But right now, we have a very tight schedule to keep.”

Now it was the eighteenth of May, which meant it was time for the end of the year field trip. It had almost been cancelled due to everything that had happened back on Family Day a couple weeks earlier (particularly given the fact that they still had no idea who was responsible or what they planned to do with the noose), but in the end, we were allowed to come after all. Someone had made the argument that it made no sense to have all the students cower at the school since we’d been attacked there to begin with. And also, of course, that if the students had been an actual target, we would’ve been hit a lot harder than we were. It was clear that putting the students in danger had been a distraction so that ‘whoever it was’ could steal the noose.

Actually, I’d been told by Professor Dare (I still didn’t know what else to think of her as) that the fact that students and children were put in danger was one of the main reasons that Mom wasn’t being immediately thrown in as a suspect. Even Ruthers didn’t think she’d intentionally poison children.  

Either way, we were allowed to go on our trip to see the US capital. Other students were being escorted/guided through the city by different teachers, since while tour groups full of kids and teenagers weren’t exactly rare in DC, we still wanted to stick with smaller groups. At least for our arrival. Apparently, we were supposed to be meeting up at some big Heretic place in the city.

“Professor Ross?” the diminutive Rebecca piped up with a raised hand then as we hustled along. “The National Building Museum, that’s near here, isn’t it?”

“National Building Museum?” Shiloh Lexx echoed, looking up from the wrist-mounted computer that served as her weapon. “Is that a real place? I mean, it sounds pretty generic. I mean really? Do we have a ‘National Animal Museum’?

“Those are called ‘zoos’, Miss Lexx,” Ross replied dryly. “Or perhaps the Museum of Natural History. So yes, in either case.” To Rebecca, she added, “And the National Building Museum is about three blocks south of our destination, near what the Bystanders currently call the Capital One Arena. Which, for those of you in the Development track who have been paying much attention, is where…” She waited expectantly then, pausing our hurried hike to watch us.

Columbus raised his hand. “It’s where Harrison Fredericks lives and works, right? I mean, in the sub-sub-sub basement with all his protection to keep everyone away from him.”

“Fredericks,” I echoed curiously. “He’s that guy who went to the alternate reality and killed that super inventor guy to take his power, right? He’s the one who first came up with the cyberforms.” As I spoke, my hand moved into one of my uniform jacket pockets to rub Jaq and Gus where they were nestled. The two of them had wanted to stay out of their private space and stick with me so they could poke their heads out to watch where we were going.

“Correct, Miss Chambers,” Professor Ross confirmed. “Which is why it is a very good idea to stay away from that place as much as possible. While Harrison Fredericks is not one to blatantly attack students, he does very much value his privacy and security. His creations wander the grounds around the arena, and are quite capable of recognizing Heretics. At best, they will report to their master that someone is intruding on his agreed-upon territory without permission, and there will be explanations to give.”

That was right, I remembered. Fredericks sold his designs and creations to people from both Crossroads and Eden’s Garden. And probably other customers as well. He was decidedly neutral in everything, which the other Heretics let him get away with because his creations were so useful. Others could make them (mostly after he or one of his direct students taught them how), but the best cyberforms came from the man himself. No one was going to risk losing his aid. So I could definitely see why we were being warned to give him space.

We’d reached a small green area by then, something that was probably rather optimistically referred to as a park, despite the fact that it was pretty tiny, only about a block long, and rather narrow to boot. A nearby sign informed me that I was correct, as the place was called Chinatown park.

“Ooh, hey,” Travis Colby started, pointing across the street. “This great Heretic place we’re going to, is it the Hampton over there? Because I could go for that.”

Professor Ross gave him a look for that. “Sorry, Mr. Colby. Unfortunately, you’ll have to make do without. Our destination is J street.”

“Err.” Vanessa had her hand up then. She looked a bit uncomfortable while correcting the woman, but did so anyway. “There isn’t a J street in Washington DC. Uh, is there?”

“Hey, that’s right.” Something had tickled the back of my mind, and I spoke up with her. “Wasn’t it a whole thing about how the guy who designed this place hated the letter J or had some kind of beef with someone with the letter J in their name or something?”

“John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,” Vanessa informed me. “Some people think L’Enfant, the guy who designed the city, had a grudge against him for negotiating a treaty that favored Britain over France.  But that’s just a myth. L’Enfant was taken off the project before the treaty ever happened. The real reason there’s no J street is because the letters J and I used to look and be treated almost exactly the same, so there was no reason to have both.”

Smiling faintly, Professor Ross nodded. “You may make a fine teacher someday, Miss Moon. Yes, that is the story that Bystanders believe. But in truth, there is a J street in Washington DC. It’s just one that they can’t reach.”

“Oh, my God,” Shiori blurted from beside me, “is it Diagon Alley? Are we going to Diagon Alley?”

Ross just blinked at her in utter bafflement. “Are we going diagonally to what?”

While those of us who understood snickered a little bit, the professor ended up just shaking her head. “In any case, come with me.” She led us through the small park to one tree in particular, gesturing. “Step up one at a time, put your hand against the tree and state your full name as it is known to Crossroads.”

Everyone started doing just that. Tristan went first, putting his hand against the tree. Then he paused, frowning until Vanessa leaned up and whispered something in his ear. The boy gave her a brief look, then shrugged and stated his name as Tristan Loxias Moon.

The tree apparently accepted that, since as soon as the boy finished saying it, he disappeared. And it really said something for what had been going on this year that all of us, as one, looked toward Professor Ross for confirmation that that was what was supposed to happen.

Vanessa went next, right behind her brother. Putting her hand against the tree, the girl announced her own name as Vanessa Lares Moon, promptly disappearing as well.

Well those are some funny names, I whispered silently to Tabbris, who was coming along for this.

Loxias is one of Uncle Satan’s names, she informed me. I mean, Apollo. And Lares were household gods or spirits, protectors of the hearth. You know, hearth like Hestia. Plus it sounds kind of like Larissa, so that’s probably part of it too, you know?

Oh. I supposed it made sense then. Sariel had given her children middle names for Apollo and Chayyiel. I wasn’t sure how close she’d been with the latter, but apparently fairly close if she’d at least partly named her daughter after her. Even if it was in a fairly vague way. And as Tabbris had noted, she’d even managed to make Vanessa’s name also sound a bit like Larissa’s at the same time.

I let the others go ahead of me, in no real rush. As we moved our way forward, my eyes found Avalon, and I smiled at the other girl. “Think we can get through an entire field trip without something blowing up?” Ignoring, of course, the fact that we were the ones planning to go off-script for this little trip with our eventual visit to the blood vault.

“I’m not holding my breath, Chambers,” Avalon replied flatly. “But at least we’re used to the explosions by now.”

Summer Banning spoke up then. “I don’t wanna bandwagon on so much of the stuff this year being your fault, you guys, but if you are doing something to attract trouble, could you maybe not for awhile? My sister was really freaked out by Family Day, and she graduated from Crossroads. If she finds out something bad happened to me again this soon…”

“Don’t worry,” I replied, “we’ll do our best not to drag you guys into any trouble.”

Because they shouldn’t be around when we go visit the vault, Tabbris put in.

Exactly, I confirmed with a mental wink at my partner. But they don’t need to know that. And unless things go very–actually, you know what, I’m not going to finish that thought. At all.

Good call, she agreed.

“Trust us,” Sands put in then from where she and Scout were standing together, “there’s been crazy things happening all year every year Crossroads has existed. And you guys haven’t been here that long. Unless you’re reincarnating every four years just to hau–never mind. That’s probably not off the wall enough to be completely impossible.”

“Yes,” I shot back, “we reincarnate every four years just to haunt Crossroads and make things go wrong. Gotta keep life exciting for all the students out there. Wouldn’t want you to get bored.”  

The twins–err, the Mason twins–gave me a pair of thumbs up. They had both seemed more alive and… happy with life ever since they’d come back from their trip with Larissa. They were also apparently living with her in one of the staff apartments, while Liam had taken a leave of absence for the time being. One of the teachers of the older years, Professor Dancing, had been filling in for him.

Yeah, I’d asked the twins what happened with that. According to Sands and Scout, their mother had basically just told their dad that over the course of the years they’d been separated, she had basically… drifted apart from him. She didn’t tell him all the other stuff she knew about, because duh. She just kind of left it at the idea that they were different people.

Liam, apparently, had not taken that very well. Mostly because he’d seen Haiden right after that and immediately jumped on the idea that he was the person Larissa had been drifting toward. What started out as a fairly innocuous conversation had very quickly become a confrontation that Larissa had to step in on and… yeah, that was why Professor Mason was taking a break.

By that point, my attention was drawn to the tree once more as Rebecca moved up to it. Placing her hand against the bark, the small girl announced, “Rebecca Josie Jameson.”

Josie. Her middle name was Josie. That was very close to Joselyn. Just like Mom had made my middle name Lillian, after her old best friend, Rebecca’s grandmother. Somewhere in there, the original Lillian clearly (at least subconsciously) remembered her roommate and passed that on to her daughter and then to her granddaughter.

I must’ve been staring pretty intently then, because Shiori nudged me with her foot, whispering, “Are you okay?”

Shaking that off, I nodded to the girl, whispering back, “Talk about it later.”

Columbus went then, followed by Sean. Shiori was right behind them, and I followed her to the tree. Laying my hand against it, I spoke my full name clearly as, “Felicity Lillian Chambers.”

Instantly, the world spun, as I was transported elsewhere. It felt like… well, like falling. It felt like I was dropping through a long dive on a roller coaster, my stomach jumping up into my chest briefly.

As it turned out, feeling like I was falling was pretty appropriate. Because when the sensation faded, I found myself in what was clearly an underground tunnel. Of sorts. Actually, it looked like a street similar to the one above. I, and everyone else who had gone through the tree so far, were standing on a road with buildings to either side. But beyond those buildings and above them was the rocky, dirt walls and ceiling of the tunnel. Yeah, we were in an enormous underground cavern of some kind.

“Hiya, guys!” That was Nevada, standing on the sidewalk where she’d already directed some of the others. “Welcome to J Street, home of the Crossroads Capital and a lot of other important things.”

We moved over to join the others, while Nevada happily explained (apparently not for the first time) that J Street had been planned from the beginning of DC’s creation to be the center of Crossroads business in North America. Everything went through here. The Committee’s primary residences and business offices were centered on J Street, as were plenty of other things. Like the Bow Street Runners offices that weren’t in the Pathmaker Building. Basically, what was in the Pathmaker were field offices, while these were the ‘home offices’.

Before long, the rest of our group joined us. Professor Ross came last, making sure everyone had made it before announcing that we should follow Nevada. We did so, and our Stranger Truths teacher led us down the street.

The place looked… eclectic. That was the best word I had for it. The buildings looked like they had each been plucked from a very different time period before being tossed down next to one another. There was a very modern looking tall glass office structure right next to what looked like an old west saloon. Beside that there was a building with a bunch of pillars out front and one of those naked statues that the Romans and Greeks liked so much. I even caught sight of a long log house like there would have been on the American frontier. Every type of building was represented somewhere along this enormous, twisting tunnel.

And the people. Oh God, the people. I had thought that Crossroads personnel looked pretty modern, given how long a lot of them had lived. But this place more than made up for it. I saw people of every possible type of clothing style. There were cowboys, samurai, Victorian-dressed people, a few with clothes out of the 1920’s, 50’s, and even the 80’s, and more. Everywhere I looked, there were people that looked different. It was like… it was like there were a whole bunch of movies being filmed somewhere nearby, and all the extras had wandered off set.

There was a lot to see, to put it mildly. I almost tripped over one of the others more than once from craning my neck to look at everything as we were led down the street, and I wasn’t the only one. Even those who had grown up in the knowledge, like Sands and Scout, were pretty taken by the place. I guessed they hadn’t been here much, if at all.

Eventually, we were led to what looked like a homey little cottage. Seriously, it looked like it had come straight out of a storybook. There was a stone path leading up to the front door, the building itself was all rounded shapes and colorful designs. There was a chimney steadily puffing out smoke that smelled like apple pie. It was freaking adorable.

Following Nevada up to the front door of the cottage before passing through as she opened it, we found ourselves in, of course, a place that was much bigger on the inside. Instead of the tiny room that the exterior made the place look like, we were actually standing in a large foyer. The floor and walls were made of wood, with a rounded desk straight ahead of us, and two hallways leading off to either side. Behind the desk was a wall full of pictures of various people (I saw several Committee members as well as Gaia), and a closed door with a needlework of a cat on it.

The woman who had been sitting behind the desk when we entered quickly hopped right up. And that was a literal hop. She was about as small as Rebecca was, and wide enough to basically be considered round. Her face was lined with wrinkles, which were magnified by her broad smile.

“Hello, hello, hello!” Hurrying around her desk, the small, elderly woman called happily while extending her arms as if she just wanted to hug all of us at once. “Oh, it’s so good to see you all. Freshmen, yes? Yes, I know freshmen when I see them. Mostly cuz I don’t recognize you.”

Laughing, she clapped her hands together. “Now then, my name is Mrs. Brickswell. You’re the first group to arrive, so it looks like you have your pick of the rooms.”

Rooms. Right, this was the motel that we’d be staying in while we were visiting DC. Apparently Crossroads wanted us to stay in a Heretic inn rather than risking putting us up somewhere in the Bystander parts of the city. Which I really, really couldn’t blame them for by that point.

Mrs. Brickswell continued then. “Our rooms are made for four people each, so everybody go ahead and pick three friends, of the same gender, mind, and come on back to get a key. It sounds like we’ve got a lot more on the way, so let’s hustle on through, okay?”

Well, four of us. That was me, Avalon, Sands, and Scout. As the others moved that way, I squeezed Shiori’s hand and glanced to her. “You gonna be okay? I don’t want to abandon the twins.”

She nodded easily. “Sure, I’ll room with Aylen, Koren, and Rebecca. Don’t worry, Flick, we’re gonna have fun here.”

Returning her infectious smile, I gave the girl a thumbs up before leaning in to give her a very quick (and then slightly less quick, but still) kiss. “You’re right. Fun. And informative, if Vanessa has anything to say about it.”

The two of us snickered before moving to our respective groups. We’d get our rooms and go from there. Nevada was already talking about how we were all going to go to dinner somewhere special that night.

So yes, this was going to be a fun few days. We’d go out, see the town and go on the tours. We’d see all the special things we could, of both the Heretic and Bystander variety. Apparently Shiori and Columbus’s parents were supposed to show up at some point, which would be interesting. We’d do all that for those few days. And then, eventually, we’d make our move for the vault.

I just hoped that with all our planning and the help we were bringing, we were actually ready for the… ‘fun’ that was going to bring.

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Interlude 40A – A Funeral

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The light of the moon shone brilliantly across the dark waters of the ocean, the ripples across the surface seeming to glow at the height of each soft wave before fading to black as they sank once more. A gentle wind rustled the leaves of the nearby jungle, while its inhabitants made their presence known through their calls of food, of danger, and of the hunt.

“Thanks for coming, you guys,” I spoke softly. “I wouldn’t have blamed you if you didn’t.”

The people with me as I stood on the beach, damp sand from the waves under my feet, were my team, and others. Sean, Columbus, Doug, Sands, Scout, Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan were there. So were Wyatt, Koren… and Abigail and Miranda. Yeah. The latter two were here on the Crossroads beach, thanks to Gaia. It wouldn’t be a long visit, but they wanted to be here for this. They needed to be here for this. And since the Committee along with basically everyone else was busy trying to find out what the hell had happened even a day after it went down… well, it gave us this opening.

Tabbris was there too, possessing me for the time being so that she could be here for this.

In the background, a short distance away from where we were, Dare and Gaia stood together. They were staying out of the way, while also making sure nothing went wrong or interrupted.

Vulcan moved to nudge up against me, making a soft whining sound. Sean, meanwhile, nodded. “He’s right. We know why you need to do this, Flick. It’s important.”

The others murmured agreement, and I took a breath before slowly lowering my gaze to look at the object at the edge of the beach in front of us, right next to the water. It was a canoe. And in that canoe lay a small body wrapped in sheets.

He looks kind of sad like that, Tabbris’ voice in my head whispered. But he was still an evil, murderous jackdonkey.

Jackdonkey? I sent back. That’s a new one. And yeah… he does look kind of sad, just a bundle like that. I… I wish someone could have helped him. Undone what Fossor did to him, I mean.

Ammon. The body in the boat was Ammon, his head wrapped in with it. Even though I couldn’t actually see it, just looking at the sheet covering his dead form was enough to bring bile to my throat. This shouldn’t have happened. None of it should have happened. The whole situation was… it was horrific. I couldn’t even begin to think about what Dare was going through. Especially since she didn’t have nearly the amount of people to talk through it with as Koren and I did. She had the two of us and Gaia. That was it. And honestly, I wasn’t sure that Koren and I were any good at making her feel better. Ammon was her grandson, and she’d killed him. She’d had no choice, and he was, as Tabbris said, ‘a murderous jackdonkey.’ But still, she had killed him. That had to weigh on her.

Not that she was any stranger to things weighing on her. Sacrificing not only her husband, but her entire history with both him and his people… that was clearly worse than I could imagine. She’d had to let her husband, the man she loved, die. And afterward, rather than being able to grieve with their family, with the people who knew him the most… she’d been alone. None of them had remembered her. She lost the man she loved, and at the same time, had been erased from the minds of everyone whom she should have been able to grieve with.

And she had done it all, willingly, to save the world from the Fomorians. I didn’t even have the capacity to fully comprehend that kind of sacrifice. Never mind the fact that she hadn’t only lost them once. It wasn’t like they died. They were still there. All those people, aside from her husband, were still there. She had to pretend she didn’t know them. She had to stay away from them, had to stay away from her own daughter. The child that she had made with her husband, the truest and most pure symbol of their love and union… and Virginia Dare had to stay away from her. Every single day, every hour in the decades that followed, she had to choose to put the world over her own wants and happiness. The world was free of Fomorian invasion purely and only because of Virginia Dare’s sacrifice, in every meaning of the word.

My mother was a hero whom I would probably never live up to. But my grandmother… she was a legend that the entire world, and likely far more beyond that, could never repay.

Shaking those thoughts off (at least as much as I could, anyway), I let out a soft sigh. “You’re right, it’s important.” My eyes closed briefly as I gathered myself before speaking again, a little bit louder. “You guys know that… we’re not here to mourn the monster that was killed yesterday. We’re not here to grieve for the person who murdered or tortured so many people. That was a creature created by Fossor.”

“We’re here,” a new voice spoke from the direction of Gaia and Dare, “to mourn the boy he used to be.”

It was Asenath, along with Deveron. I’d hoped she would come, and Gaia had said she would try to bring her. Apparently that was where Deveron had been. All he’d said was that he had to do something first and that he’d meet us here.

However Asenath had gotten here, it was nice to see the girl, and I stepped that way to embrace her tightly. “You made it.”

She returned it, smiling a little. “I did. It’s been awhile since we’ve been face to face, Flick.”

I nodded at that. “Too long. I… I guess that job of yours is finished now. The one who killed Denise is dead.” Denise, whose death at the gas station Ammon had visited had first spurred Asenath toward my life to begin with when the girl’s mother called for her help.

Asenath, however, shook her head. “Ammon’s dead, but the one responsible for Denise’s death is still out there. I’m not stopping just because the weapon is gone. I want the one who made that weapon and put it in that situation.”

I thought briefly before raising an eyebrow. “Fossor?”

“Fossor,” she confirmed, face set with a hard look. “He’s the one responsible for Denise’s death. And more others than we can count, but still. Denise was murdered, and I’m going to make sure the person ultimately responsible for that pays, any way that I can. Even if it means all I get to do is contribute a fraction of a percent to what finally brings him down. That fraction of a percent belongs to Denise, and I’m going to make damn sure she gets it.”

Clearing my throat then, I gestured to the others. “Uh, guys, this is Asenath. She’s–”

“My sister,” Shiori put in, moving to get her own hug from the girl.

Brief introductions went around then, Doug actually seeming a bit… smitten, honestly. It was almost funny to watch, aside from the actual situation. The boy was clearly nervous about meeting a vampire like that, but got over it pretty quick before moving on to clearly wanting to know everything about her. He kept asking questions, until Asenath promised to talk to him some more after all of this was over.

Tristan and Vanessa took a moment with her as well, the Seosten-hybrids seeming to be pretty curious about Asenath, though for different reasons. Tristan had met her once before, on the Meregan world (which to him had been several years ago, when he was still a kid) but they hadn’t had much of a chance to talk. Now, he wanted to hear about the adventures she’d had through the years. Meanwhile, Vanessa wanted to hear about the people she’d met. Asenath promised to talk to them some more later as well.

“If I’d known I’d be this popular on the Crossroads beach,” she announced, “I might’ve come sooner.”

Grimacing, I shook my head. “Probably a bad idea. Gaia can’t stand ten feet away and shield us all the time, after all.”

Abigail and Miranda were there then, the former introducing herself to Asenath and thanking her for everything she’d done.

“Good to see you again,” Randi put in when it was her turn. “Guess things have changed a lot.”

“You’re not wrong,” Asenath confirmed with a cough. “But things have a way of doing that. Especially if you live long enough.”

Randi smirked back at her. “Here’s hoping the rest of us get a chance to experience that firsthand.”  

That, of course, brought everyone’s attention to the boat, and the bundle inside of it. Realizing what she had said, Miranda grimaced. “Shit. I…”

It was Abigail who spoke. “We know what you mean. It’s… it’s okay. Ammon…” She sighed softly. “We can be glad that Fossor won’t be able to use him anymore, that…  that he’s not suffering, and that he won’t be able to inflict suffering on anyone else.”

It was hard for her. I knew that. Everything she’d been through, and even knowing what she knew about Ammon, it was still hard to accept that killing him had been the right choice. I was pretty sure she’d never fully accept it. And that was okay, because we all had at least a little doubt, a… wish that things had gone differently and that we could have found a way to save him. It was possible to be sad that it happened, while also being relieved that it happened, as contradictory as that might have seemed.

With that in mind, it was probably time to get on with it. Everyone was looking at the boat again anyway.

“Okay, umm,” I started slowly, “before we do this, I think we should talk about Ammon. He was a…” I took a breath. “Fossor turned him into a monster. He destroyed an innocent little boy just to play his sick games. I know it… it can be hard to see it, hard to accept it, but Ammon was just as much a victim as any of the people he hurt. He wasn’t born a psychopath, Fossor deliberately made him into one. So like I said before, this isn’t about mourning Ammon the monster. It’s about mourning Ammon the little boy. My little–” I had to stop, something catching in my throat until I swallowed hard and pushed on. “My little brother. He deserved better than he got.”

“All of Fossor’s victims deserve better than they get.” That was Avalon, her voice dark as she stood near me, looking out over the water. “And whatever Ammon might’ve been, or whatever he was before Fossor got to him, he was a monster and had to be put down. Yes, it’s sad that it was done to him. But it’s not sad that he was stopped before he could kill any more people. Don’t lose sight of that in your hurry to grieve for the person you wish he still was. You never met that person.”

I nodded to that. “You’re right, I know. Like I said, we’re not mourning Ammon the monster. We’re…” Pausing, I thought of the best way of putting it. “We’re mourning the little boy that he was before the monster. Think of this as a funeral taking place years after the Ammon we’re actually mourning was killed by whatever Fossor made take his place.”

My voice cracked a little then. “I probably wouldn’t have been that different from him if Mom hadn’t taken my place when Fossor tried to grab me in the first place. This–all of it, it’s Fossor’s doing. He’s a piece of shit, and he’s the one who needs to be stopped.”

Sands spoke up. “He will be. He’s got a lot of people gunning for him.” Her eyes shifted over to me before she added, “And he’s been picking fights that he’ll end up regretting.”

Moving to the boat, Abigail knelt, putting her hand on the side of it. “I wish I could have known the real Ammon, before Fossor destroyed him. I wish he’d had a chance to…  I wish he’d had a chance.”

Wyatt moved next to her then, giving me a brief look before he somewhat awkwardly knelt beside his long-lost twin. It was easy to see the resemblance when they were right next to each other like that, and I felt another pang at the reminder that they’d barely spent any time together, thanks to Ruthers.

For a moment, I wondered if Liam ever felt bad about the fact that his betrayal had helped tear twins apart from both each other and their own parents. Did he ever think about that when looking at his own twins? Did he think about it when Larissa had disappeared? Did it sink in then at all?

At least no one here had to be confused about what Wyatt and Abigail had to do with the situation. Thanks to a little help from Sariel and her command of memory magic, everyone was on the same page about that whole situation. Though it might’ve been at least a little interesting to see how the spell that had erased their identities dealt with something like this.

Slowly, I moved over to the opposite side of the canoe, taking a knee there while Koren joined me. The four of us, two on each side, all stared at the sheet-wrapped bundle within. I almost wanted to reach out and touch it, but stopped myself.

“Whatever the closest place to actual hell is,” Koren muttered under her breath in a voice that sounded as though she could barely speak, “Fossor belongs there.”

It was a sentiment we all agreed with, though none of us spoke. Neither did the others. They stood back, watching while the four of us knelt there. It was… paying our respects, basically. Not praying, exactly. Just… taking a quiet moment to kneel beside Ammon’s body. He deserved that much, deserved to have his family there with him before the end. Or most of his family, anyway.

How was Mom doing? What did Fossor tell her about it? How much did he even know? Dare had apparently made sure there were no observation spells that could have transmitted the events, so all he could know was that Ammon was dead. But I doubted that would stop him from embellishing if he felt like it. Or ranting.

Did he care about Ammon’s death? I genuinely didn’t know. Probably only as far as it affected his plans, but still. I… kind of didn’t want to follow my thoughts down that snake hole.

We’ll tell her what happened, Tabbris promised me. You know, as soon as we find her.

Smiling just a little inwardly, I tried to ignore the flash of pain. Because she was wrong. I couldn’t tell Mom about what had really happened, just like I couldn’t tell Tabbris herself. Every thought I had about that, including keeping it secret, was hidden from her. All she knew was that Dare had arrived and supposedly killed Ammon before he could control her. That was what everyone aside from Koren, Gaia, and I believed. It was what they had to believe.

Yeah, I sent back to my little partner, we’ll make sure she knows what happened.

With that in mind, I glanced back to the others, toward Professor Dare. Even now, she couldn’t show how much this affected her. Looking close, I could see Gaia holding her hand. Which was something, at least. But she couldn’t be here by the boat with us. She couldn’t let any of the others know that she hadn’t just killed a little boy, she had killed her own grandson.

Yeah, it was a good thing the spell took care of keeping thoughts like that away from Tabbris, or I would’ve blown the secret within about three seconds of her possessing me.

Deveron joined us after that first quiet moment. Taking a knee at the back of the canoe, he spoke softly. “He was Fossor’s monster. But he was also Joselyn’s son. I know her. She might not be here, but… but she knows we’re doing this. She’s ready for it. Even if she can’t see it, she… wherever she is, she’s thinking about this.”

He was right, I knew. Mom was about as close to here as she could possibly be. She knew we’d be doing this, she knew where, and she knew when. I could almost feel her, could almost imagine that she was standing right behind me.

Closing my eyes tightly for just a moment, I nodded. “She knows. And she’s waiting, so let’s do it.”

Slowly, the five of us lifted the canoe. I could have lifted it by myself, of course. As could several of the others. But that wasn’t the point. We lifted it together before taking a few steps out into the water. As it rose to my knees, we set the boat down. I gave the bundle inside one last look, before we all gave it a push, sending the canoe out onto the ocean.

Normally, the waves would have just pushed it back. But at the moment that we let it go, a small rune on the side of the boat glowed, an activated spell which slowly propelled it further away.

Once the boat was far enough away, a second spell activated on it and flames began to spread. They started small, but soon the entire canoe was engulfed, a floating bonfire there on the ocean.

We watched it together in silence as the boat, and Ammon’s body, burned. It was symbolic, of course. But it was also practical. Fossor was a freaking necromancer. Of course we were burning the body. We (or rather, Dare and Gaia) had also set up several spells on said body that would prevent his ghost from being pulled back.

More thoughts than I could articulate ran through my mind in those minutes. But the one that stood out above the others was that we all deserved better than this. Everyone deserved better than this.

We stood there the whole time, until there was no more boat that could burn. The flames themselves had been magical, capable of completely destroying the body while leaving nothing behind. It was over. Ammon was officially laid to rest, and wouldn’t bother anyone else again.

And yet, all I could think in that moment was that I wished I could say the same thing about Fossor. The fact that he was alive and had actually succeeded in his plot to take that rope made me sick to my stomach. God, I wanted that monster to die more than basically anything. But his time would come.

I just hoped that it would come before he had a chance to do whatever he wanted the rope for.

“Goodbye, Ammon,” I whispered, my voice barely carrying to the others around me. “I know it makes me a horrible person to say it, but I’m glad… I’m glad you’re gone. I’m glad you can never hurt or kill anyone again. I…” My eyes squeezed shut, a hard stone of guilt settling in my chest. “I’m sorry we couldn’t save you, but I’m glad you’ll never be able to hurt another person.”

The lump stayed, and I made myself open my eyes, staring once more at where the burning boat had been. “I’m sorry that I never got a chance to actually know you. I’m sorry for what Fossor did, and that we couldn’t help you. I’m sorry for everything you went through. I’m sorry for that part of you that was trying so hard to understand why it was wrong. For everything you went through, for everything that Fossor put you through, for what he turned you into, and… most importantly, for all of your victims that we couldn’t save…

“I’m sorry.”

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