Sean Gerardo

Study And Scrutiny 20-03

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Haiden and Sariel posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the previous chapter button above. 

“Two months!” Professor Carfried’s excitable voice filled the Introduction to Heretical Magic classroom two days later. Friday. Like most schools, Crossroads came back from break with only a couple days of classes to go before the weekend so that students could ease back into the workload.

“For two months,” the man continued while standing in the center of our circle of tables, “you’ve been able to practice the spell that we started back in November. I gave you that extra time because the spell itself is hard to pull off. But by this point, you all should have been able to manage it. So.” Clapping his hands together, he smiled broadly. “How many of you think you’ve got the hang of the Kevlar spell?”

About half the class raised their hands, including me. I’d had plenty of other things to do, of course. But a spell to turn clothes bulletproof was too useful to ignore. Knowing that Carfried was going to bring it up, I spent some of the day before working on it before class today. The first two times, it pretty much fizzled, but after the third, I managed to pull it off. Repeating the success twice more convinced me.

Sitting there with my hand up, I snuck a look toward Avalon. We still hadn’t talked that much over the past couple days. Not about—well, what had happened before the winter break, anyway. I had the feeling that she wanted to talk about it a couple times, but always brought up something else instead.

Yeah, we needed to talk about it. And I needed to talk to Shiori, to both of them. Preferably together, because that was the only fair way to do it. I wanted all of us to be on the same page. Tonight was the first Hunter track meeting. But tomorrow was Saturday. Tomorrow, I’d get them together and talk then.

“Only half of you?” Carfried shook his head with obvious disappointment, looking around at the class. “Are you sure? You can pull it off, right? Just a little spell, not that hard.” He watched with open eagerness and encouragement, gesturing for more people to raise their hands.

However, once a few people gave in to the encouragement and lifted their hands, the man slammed his hand down hard on the nearest table. The resulting bang made everyone jump, as he bellowed, “No!”

Straightening, he strode around the circle, eyes watching all of us as we jolted in our seats and stared at him. “No,” he repeated, a bit quieter but with just as much force. “Do not do that. Never do that. If you don’t think you’re ready for something, don’t let me or anyone else guilt or pressure you into it. This is magic class, not Crocheting 101. Magic. It is dangerous. If you’re not ready, speak up and say so.”

Stopping with his back to where my table was, the man slowly turned in a circle to take all of us in once more before continuing. “That goes for many other things, not just magic. If you’re not ready, speak up. I don’t care if it’s a classmate, an older student, an adult Heretic, or another teacher. If they ask you to do something dangerous and you’re not ready, say something. Your lives are valuable. You are valuable. And there is no shame in saying you’re not ready. There is shame in endangering your lives and the lives of people around you just because you let yourself be pressured into something.”

After letting that sit for a few moments, Carfried spoke again in a much calmer and more gentle voice. “Now, one more time. Which of you are sure that you are ready to try this spell?” He watched as some of our hands returned to the air, smiling faintly that time. “Good. Okay, let’s start with… Rebecca?”

The tiny, dark-haired girl (who at full height still stood a couple inches less than five feet tall) straightened up in her seat while lowering her hand along with the rest of us. “Yes, sir?”

Carfried stepped back to his own table in the very middle of the circle, gesturing. “Come on down here. Don’t worry, I’ll walk through it with you and we’ll see how it goes. Everyone else pay close attention.”

Rebecca hopped out of her seat and squeezed through one of the openings between tables, joining Carfried as the man began to lay out an old army jacket. From a pocket, he produced a black marker identical to the one that Dare had given me before the winter break. “Do you know what this is?”

Her head bobbed up and down. “Yes, sir. It’s a field-engraver. It lets you write on things that are hard to write on, or if you don’t want it to be permanent. Once the spell activates, the writing disappears.”

“Correct!” the young teacher grinned, holding it up. “Or, if you turn the part at the top, it will turn the engraver into erase mode, so that you can take off the spell. Or to fix a mistake.” To demonstrate, he put his fingers at the top of the marker. “Twist to the left and it’s in writing mode. Draw any spell you’d like. Twist just a little to the right and it’s in erase mode. It will erase any mark it’s made on anything.

“Now,” he added while holding the field-engraver out to to the small girl. “Would you be so kind, Rebecca, as to draw the Kevlar spell onto this jacket? Do you remember the exact way it goes?”

Taking the engraver, Rebecca hesitated. For a moment, it looked like she was about to go for it, but then she shook her head. “Can I… get the book from my bag and look at it again, sir? Just to be sure.”

Carfried’s smile broadened, and he gestured for her to go ahead. “Yes. Remember, spells are complicated. If you need to look them up just to be sure, don’t hesitate. Most Heretics who use spells carry around cheat sheets of their most-used spells. There’s no shame in being careful with magic.”

Using her notebook, Rebecca etched the design of the spell onto the back of the jacket that Carfried had provided. It took about ten minutes for her to get the whole thing just right and to put enough energy into it. In the end, she put her hands against the spellform and murmured the trigger for the spell. As she finished speaking, the runes that she had drawn briefly glowed bright red before fading entirely.

Carfried thanked her profusely before plucking the jacket off the table. Walking it across the room, he waved for us to get up from our seats and follow as he led the class to the other end of the room.

Glancing toward Sean as we got up, I whispered, “Speaking of this spell, if we run into too many bulletproof things out there, your little buddy’s gonna need some more tricks up his sleeves. Err, paws.”

“Ehh,” Sean replied with a grin while rubbing the top of Vulcan’s head. “Don’t you worry about that. He’s already got special bullets to get around stuff like that. Plus, we’ve got plans. Don’t we, boy?”

Vulcan gave a little woof of agreement before trotting along beside his master as we joined the others.

“Now,” Carfried announced while hanging the jacket on a mannequin that stood there. “Let’s see how well she did, shall we?” As he spoke, the man reached into his own jacket, producing what looked like a simple nine millimeter pistol. “This is a Bystander weapon. I’m sure you’re all familiar with it.” He held it up, turning so that we could all see, before turning back to face the mannequin while taking up a shooting stance. “The only difference with this weapon from anything a Bystander would use,” Carfried explained, “is that I’ve used a spell on the barrel to make it much quieter. Other than that, it will fire with just as much force and destructive capability as an ordinary gun. But, before we go any further, can anyone tell me how this spell is supposed to work? Will the bullets just ricochet off and go shooting into one of you, or any other innocent bystander? Capital b or lower case.”

He nodded toward Vanessa, who shook her head before reciting, “If performed correctly, the so-called Kevlar spell will drain the kinetic energy from the bullets or any other fast moving object that reaches the enchanted item. Essentially, they’ll lose all their momentum and bounce off as if they were just tossed gently. The previous version of the spell did what you said, make the bullets ricochet like, um–”

“Like Superman!” Tristan cut in. “Or Colossus when he’s got his metal skin, or the Thing, or–”

“Yes, thank you, Tristan,” Carfried interrupted with a chuckle. “And thank you, Vanessa. Correct. The old version of the spell simply made things bulletproof by repelling the incoming objects. Unfortunately, that proved to be too dangerous to civilians and other Heretics. So it was updated.”

He asked a couple more questions about the way the spell worked, focusing not just on Vanessa, but on everyone else as well. As young and new at this as he may have been, Carfried was a decent teacher.

Finally, he cleared his throat. “Well, that’s enough talk, don’t you think? Let’s see how this works.”

Taking careful aim, the man fired six shots, one after another. Thanks to the muting spell he’d used, each one sounded more like a handclap than the terrifying bang that would have left us all deafened.

Once he was finished, the man holstered the gun before walking over to the jacket. Once he reached it, Carfried turned to face us while gesturing to the floor. “Would everyone take a close look down here?”

We didn’t have to look that close. All six bullets were lying scattered around the floor at the feet of the mannequin. And as the man tugged the jacket off the dummy, he turned it around to show that there was no damage either to the jacket itself, or to the mannequin. “As you can see, Rebecca performed the spell just right. Anyone shot in the jacket with the spell active would be just fine. Well done, Rebecca. Very well done.” Setting the jacket back in place, he grinned and clapped a couple times encouragingly.

Once that was done, however, the man paused. “Now, of course, this spell won’t last forever. Rebecca here put enough power into it to make it last… oh, probably about ten minutes. Naturally, the longer you work and the more power you put into it, the longer the spell will remain active. But ten minutes should be enough for most normal encounters, so there’s no need to kill yourself by preparing a version that’ll last an entire hour. Just use the trigger spell when when you’re about to get into trouble. Then, of course,” he added, “there are other ways to extend the time of the spell. But we’ll get into those later. For now, let’s split up into groups. If you think you can cast this spell, group up with one or two people who don’t. We’ll have you work together until everyone can pull it off. Then we’ll shoot some more rounds and see just how much metal we can cover the floor with, all right? All right, let’s do it.”

******

Several hours later, as I was walking across the lawn, Shiori caught up with me. “Hey, Flick!” she called happily before lowering her voice conspiratorially. “Did you get to talk to you-know-who yet?”

With a set-up like that, I couldn’t help it. Shaking my head, I replied, “Sorry, Voldemort’s still obsessed with that other magic school. He hasn’t even bothered to return my letters. Can you believe that?”

Rewarding me with a giggle that made me shiver (and reminded me of my promise to myself that I would talk to her and Avalon the next day), Shiori shook her head. “Yeah, he’s a jerk. But the other you-know-who. You know, a certain older student that might know something about a certain ring?”

Chuckling softly, I snapped my fingers. In my pocket, I carefully touched one of the privacy coins. We were alone, but it never hurt to be extra-careful. “Ohhh, you mean Namid. No, I haven’t. Believe it or not, it’s hard to find an excuse to walk up to a third-year and say, ‘oh hey, can I talk to you about an ancient magical artifact that your ancestor might’ve had before your other ancestor, who happens to be on the Committee, betrayed him and got him killed? Oh, but don’t tell her about any of this, kay?’”

“Well, when you put it like that…” Shiori coughed. “How are you gonna talk to her about it?”

Shrugging helplessly, I admitted, “I’m not sure yet. But something’ll come to me. It has to.” Glancing around carefully, I lowered my voice. Yeah, we had the coin, but still. “Roxa needs that necklace, or the ring, or whatever it is now. And Namid’s the only actual lead we have about it besides Pace herself.”

“Yeah…” Shiori murmured, looking down briefly before glancing to me. “If you wanna talk to her together, we can. I mean, at least there’s a slightly better chance of getting her to stand still and listen?”

“I can’t just tell her everything,” I pointed out. “I’ve gotten really lucky so far. I’d rather not push that by expecting a third-year student to suddenly believe everything I say that happens to completely destroy their world-view. Especially when she’s got a great-great-grandmother or whatever on the Committee. I need an excuse to ask her about it. Maybe… an assignment? Hey, maybe we can get Professor Dare to give a project for ancient magic items and I can make up a trail leading to that thing.”

“Do you think Professor Dare would do that?” Shiori asked, head tilting. “And can you make up a believable trail that could lead you to Namid and that ring when there’s nothing in the library about it?”

I thought about it for another moment before nodding. “I’m pretty sure Dare’ll do it if I ask her, as long as I tell her why. She wants to help Roxa too. And it’s not like making an excuse to talk to Namid is that dangerous. You know, compared to other things I could be doing. As for the rest of it… yeah, I’ve got a few ideas. It’ll take time to set up, and I’ll probably need help, but I can make a trail leading to her.”

Shiori’s head bobbed. “If you need help talking to her, I’m there. I could be the muscle to your brains.”

“I think I’ll need your brain too,” I pointed out. “Maybe we can take turns being muscle and brains.”

She gave me a thumbs up, then grinned that familiar Shiori-grin. “Whatever happens, we should take her to the bank when we talk to her. That way, she won’t ignore us and go running off.”

“The bank?” I echoed, raising an eyebrow. “How would taking her to a bank make her pay attention?”

“Because it’ll be sure to keep her interest!” Shiori blurted before doubling over on herself, snickering.

It was terrible. And yet somehow, I still giggled. Just hearing the other girl laugh at her own corny joke, as bad as it was, made me want to laugh too.

Finally, I shook my head. “Okay, okay. We’ll see. But now, uhh–” I paused, looking down at my new uniform with its green trim before looking back up to Shiori’s own matching one. “Think you could show me where we’re supposed to meet up for the track class?”

“Oh!” Shiori straightened, glancing to my uniform as if just noticing the color and what it meant. “Right, we’re in the same track now. We–” She paused, glancing to me briefly as if trying to figure out if I’d done that on purpose.

I hadn’t. I’d forgotten that Shiori was in the Hunter track, honestly. But I also wasn’t going to complain.

She shook that off without comment, though her smile did brighten a little. “Yeah, c’mon. I’ll show you.”

As she started to walk, the girl added, “I wonder what Professor Hisao is like.”

“I only met him once,” I admitted, “But from what I saw, he jokes around a lot and doesn’t take much seriously. But, you know, he’s one of their big investigators, so he’s gotta be really good at his job. Oh,” I paused before adding, “And I’m pretty sure he and Professor Dare are… you know.”

Her eyes went wide as she looked at me. “Are you sure?” When I nodded, she smiled broadly. “Oh my god, that is so… so… Dare and Hisao—wow.”

“Yeah, just… don’t say anything,” I coached her. “Dare really doesn’t want it getting out there. You know, because of the whole Crossroads-Garden rivalry thing.”

Shiori mimed locking her lips with a key before tossing it away. Then she giggled. “Still, it is pretty romantic.”

For a few seconds, the two of us stood there and looked at each other. The word ‘romantic’ lay between us, and I felt myself blush before clearing my throat. “We—um, we’re gonna be late for the track if we…”

Visibly shaking herself, Shiori quickly nodded. “Right, yeah. C’mon, we usually meet down on the beach.”

She set off, and after a moment, I followed.

Yeah, I needed to talk to both her and Avalon. We needed to sort this whole thing out before someone ended up getting hurt. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I would deal with it head-on. No more excuses. No more delaying. I was going to talk to Shiori and Avalon.

But tonight, well, tonight it was time to see just how this Hunter track was going to work with Hisao in charge. And how some of the more… loyal Crossroads students would take being taught by a substitute from Eden’s Garden.

I had a feeling it was going to be interesting.

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Study and Scrutiny 20-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sands looked to her sister before both shook their heads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Study And Scrutiny 20-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

“Valley, Valley, wait.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Second Hunt 16-06

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I wanted to talk to my father.

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked at that. “Err, ma’am?”

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

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

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

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

“God knows I need the help.”

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Second Hunt 16-04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we ran.

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Second Hunt 16-03

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Please note that there was another commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Mateo and Roxa posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t read it yet, feel free to click the previous chapter button. 

“So who’s rowing us over there?” Sands was holding up the oars as the seven of us (plus Vulcan) settled into the life raft off the side of the yacht. “Flick, you wanna do it since you had to go and get better enhanced strength than me?” Her tone was teasing as she poked me with one of the oars. Still, I figured she had to be at least a little bit jealous that after all that had happened, she hadn’t ended up with any kind of ‘flashy’ power, and the big thing she had, strength, I’d ended up getting more of. After all, she’d been waiting her whole life to be a Heretic. Now not only were we asking her to accept a huge change in how she thought about Strangers, but the rest of us kept getting more powers than her.

Before I could say anything, however, Deveron actually spoke up. “Hold on. Here, all of you take one of these.” Holding out his hand and opening it up, he showed us what looked like small nasal spray bottles. “Give each nostril a good spritz, then put it in your pocket. Trust me, if that ghost ship’s full of dead people, this stuff is gonna save you from losing every meal you’ve eaten for the past week.”

“I really wish people would stop saying ghost ship,” Sean muttered while taking one of the sprays.

Taking one for myself, I did as our mentor (who was actually mentoring) had advised. I expected to get some kind of strong scent, but the stuff didn’t really smell like anything at all. It was like water.

“Well,” I coughed after finishing the spray, giving my head a shake. “I guess I could take the oar, if-”

But Avalon slipped past me then to sit at the back of the boat. “I’ve got it,” she replied flatly. “Everyone else just sit down and hold on.” Pausing, she added pointedly, “And when I say that, I mean hold tight.”

The rest of us exchanged glances, but took the other girl at her word and found our seats quickly. I found myself beside Deveron, glancing sidelong to him. Lowering my voice, I asked, “You think Koren’s okay?” Yeah, even after all the reassurances I had, and the fact that Nevada had actually killed the Fomorian, I was still afraid of another one coming after her. After all, he had gotten a message off.

“She’ll be all right,” he assured me while plucking a pair of sunglasses from the inside pocket of his red-trimmed uniform jacket. “Here, try these on. Let’s see how you look with some actual style.”

Blinking once, I opened my mouth to decline. But the look on his face convinced me otherwise. Shrugging, I took the sunglasses and put them. As soon as they settled into place, I almost jerked backward in surprise, right out of the boat. The only thing that stopped me was Deveron’s waiting hand on my back and his other on my arm to hold me in place. Because he’d known exactly how I’d react.

The view through the sunglasses wasn’t just the one in front of me. Instead, I saw the normal view through one lens, and a completely different one through the other. I was seeing someone jogging through a forest, hand raised with a hunga munga in it before throwing the weapon ahead. A second later, the person whose eyes I was seeing through was teleported to where the axe had been thrown.

It was Koren. I was seeing through Koren’s eyes with these sunglasses. My mouth opened and I looked toward Deveron, stammering a little bit in spite of myself. “What—I– did you–”

“Like I said,” he replied simply. “She’ll be okay.” Reaching out, Deveron plucked the sunglasses from me and put them on his own face. Then he settled back a bit in the boat before gesturing for me to do the same. “And the shades make you look good. Maybe you should get your own pair sometime.”

By that point, everyone else had finished sitting down. Once she was sure that we were all holding on, Avalon turned just a little bit and held one of her gauntlet-covered hands up. A projection of a long solid shaft appeared, before three short, wide, and slightly curved blades emerged from the end of it.

Noticing all of us watching what she was doing curiously, Avalon actually smirked slightly. Then the three blades at the end of the shaft began to spin rapidly. Like a chainsaw. Or, more to the point, like a–

“Propeller!” Columbus blurted. “You made a propeller. I thought you couldn’t–” He stopped himself, realizing the truth belatedly. “Wait, is that the other thing you’ve been working on in the shop while you were stuck off your feet? You upgraded your gauntlets to make projections with moving parts?”

She nodded once. “Specific ones that I have to program into them first. I knew we’d be going on a boat, so…” Lowering the projection of the propeller into the water, adding, “Last chance to start holding on.”

My hands caught onto the side of the raft, just as Avalon’s propeller kicked in. And then the boat pretty much flew across the water. A yelp of surprise escaped me at the sudden acceleration. I hadn’t exactly been in a speedboat before, but I had to think that this was pretty much what that would’ve been like.

With Avalon’s new toy, it didn’t take long for us to reach the base of the derelict cruise ship. The massive, dark, foreboding structure loomed over us with a sort of silent menace that made me shiver.

Columbus took the large backpack that he had taken to carrying around off his shoulders and crouched on the side of the life boat before producing what looked essentially like a toilet plunger. Except that instead of only having the the rubber mouth part at one end, it had them at both. And instead of the handle being made of wood, it looked like it was made of metal. Columbus shoved one of the cups against the side of the cruise ship and twisted the handle a little, then shoved the cup at the other end against the side of our boat and gave another twist. There was a squishing noise before the boy gave a nod of satisfaction. “There,” he announced. “Now our ride won’t drift away while we’re up there.”

“My turn,” Sands announced, carefully standing up in the raft while producing her mace. As we watched, she began to tap it against the side of the ship lightly. Everywhere the weapon touched, a little bit of horizontal metal about a foot wide appeared, along with a tiny vertical bit of metal on each side. She was making a ladder. The horizontal bits were footholds while the vertical ones were handholds.

“Well?” Sands gestured before starting to climb up the few parts she had already made. As she climbed, the other girl continued to make more of them to extend the ladder. “Are you guys coming, or what?”

Avalon went up the makeshift ladder next, followed quickly by Scout and then Columbus. Meanwhile, Sean and I looked at one another for a moment, then simultaneously lowered our gazes to where Vulcan was sitting. The metal dog was staring up at the ladder doubtfully, a tiny whine escaping him.

“Don’t worry, buddy.” Sean reached down. “I’ve got you.” He grabbed the robotic canine, switching him into his minigun form before hauling the weapon up over his shoulders and onto his back. It hung there by a strap that appeared from the handle, while Sean grunted. “Now I need a strength boost.”

“Sorry buddy,” I patted him on the shoulder. “Maybe you’ll pick something up from this little trip.”

Wow. Part of me felt… weird and wrong to say something like that when the people on this ship had been killed by these monsters. What was wrong with me? Was it a product of everything I’d already been through, coupled with trying to keep things as normal as possible? Dad had told me about cops who horrified onlookers by joking in the middle of horrifying homicide scenes. Maybe it was like that.

“Hard to get used to, isn’t it?” Deveron spoke from behind me. When I looked that way, he continued, his expression softening. “Or maybe sometimes it’s a little too easy to get used to. And that can be, uh, that can be scary. When you look at something like this, think about all the people who died and… and it doesn’t destroy you inside. Or you think of a joke. Or… anything. If you can think of anything other than those people that are dead, even for a second, it kind of makes you feel like you’re the monster.”

Wincing at that, I looked away briefly before turning back to him. “You’ve been through it too, huh?”

Deveron gave a nod, his hand moving up to my shoulder. “We all have. Doesn’t make you a monster.”

The two of us stood there briefly, and I had this strange (or maybe not so strange) urge to hug him. Yeah, he was kind of my father’s… competition for my mother, and he had been acting like a complete dick as part of his plan. But I had to ask myself how I’d act if someone I loved as much as he obviously loved Mom was in the situation she was in, let alone his own children… and well, I understood now.

Shaking it off, along with thoughts of the other questions that I still wanted to ask him, I finally started up the ladder after the rest of my team. Deveron did something to the boat below before following.

Finally, all seven of us were up on the end of the main deck, at the stern. There wasn’t a lot to see up at this point, except for some abandoned picnic tables and fallen umbrellas. A bit further away there was a hot tub, but I couldn’t see any water in it. There was, however, a grayish stain smeared over the side.

“I’m pretty sure I’m really glad we can’t smell anything right now,” I murmured under my breath while my eyes scanned the rest of the ship. Nothing. Just dark emptiness in spots that should have been filled with laughing people having the time of their lives. Or at least pleasant elderly retirees quietly reading books and drinking iced tea. There weren’t even any bodies out here. The place was just… abandoned.

“It’s not that you can’t smell anything,” Deveron corrected me. “It’s that you can’t smell the bodies. The bad smells, that’s what’s filtered out.” Then he gestured. “And that’s the last of the help that I can give you guys, until you ask for it. Be careful, watch each other’s backs, and if you need something, take the penalty for the love of a god and ask for it. Until then, I’ll be here.” He stepped back, folding his arms.

“Okay,” Avalon announced, stepping up while her eyes continued to scan the ship. Like me, she didn’t seem to see anything out of the ordinary. Or at least nothing that stood out any more than any of the rest of this creep-fest did. “Ship’s too big to all search together. And yes, Porter, I know what you’re going to say about splitting up, so don’t say it. But if we don’t, we’ll never track anything down. It’s too easy to stay away from one group of us, and it’ll take too long to go over the place enough. Whatever’s on here could just keep avoiding us. So we split into pairs again, like we did the first time at the lake.”

Turning back toward us, her gaze passed over me briefly before landing on Sean. “Gerardo, you and me will take this deck all the way to the back of the ship, then start working our way up deck by deck, one at a time. Chambers, you and Mason take those stairs right there to the top deck and work your way down. Search all the rooms, and call in if you find anything. Once we meet up around the middle, we’ll go together to check out the belowdecks area, assuming we haven’t found what we need so far.”

Columbus opened his mouth, but she was already looking that way. “Porter, you go with Scout up that way.” She pointed to another set of stairs. “Looks like it goes to the bridge. Get up there, see if you can find anything in the log or… anything else that could explain what happened here. And Scout, you set up all the shot-portals you need to give us covering fire when we flush out whatever attacked this ship.”

Sands and I looked at one another for a brief moment before we both nodded. The other girl spoke up easily. “Sure, Flick and I can cover each other. You’ll be okay with Columbus, Scout?” She glanced that way until her sister nodded silently, then gave Avalon a quick thumbs up. “Yup, looks like we’re good.”

“Good.” That time, Avalon’s gaze did indeed linger on me. “Just be careful. See anything, call it in.”

So we split up. Sands took the lead, slowly walking several feet ahead of me while I watched her back as we moved to the elegant-looking stairs that led upward. One step after another, the two of us gradually climbed while keeping a sharp eye out everywhere around us. There were still no bodies anywhere in sight, just more of those ugly gray stains that made me feel uneasy just by looking at them.

Glancing over to the side, I could see Scout and Columbus making their own way up another set of stairs toward the bridge. The two were a little bit higher than we were, and making faster progress. I was about to look away and focus on our own way again when Scout glanced back and down toward us. Smiling a little, I raised a hand to her. Except the other girl didn’t wave back. Instead, she actually shouted, her normally soft and barely-ever audible voice suddenly filling the air around us. “Down!

Well, that was a good enough warning. Instantly, I dropped to a knee on the stairs, ducking my head with a yelp. At the same time, something whooshed past just above before clattering against the railing.

Sands had spun around by that point. As I lifted my gaze to see the girl, I also saw something else. Leaning up out of the stairs above her, literally seeming to emerge from the step itself, there was the top half of what looked like a cross between a goblin and a skeleton. Half of it had no skin or muscle at all, just exposed bones. Other parts had bits of muscle and skin hanging off its body. Of its two hands that were outstretched, one was pure white, polished bone that made a slight clattering noise as the fingers moved, while the other was covered in what looked like completely rotting flesh. Pale green and yellow skin that sagged in places covered most of its face, save for a bit around its left eye, which was bare to the skull and showed the eyeball flicking around within the partially-broken socket.

And the thing was reaching for Sands, who was already shouting out a warning of her own as she lunged to swing her mace at something behind me. Something probably pretty identical to the thing I was shouting to warn her about. My staff went up and under the other girl’s raised arm, shoving into that nasty thing’s exposed eye. It let out a shriek that sounded like a flock of pissed off crows, before jerking backwards and down to disappear back into the stairway, leaving behind no trace of itself.

At the same time, Sands lunged down a step, bringing her mace hard against the railing behind me with a terrifying crash. Then the two of us stood there, pretty much face-to-face with our weapons extended past each other. Sands was panting.

“Did…” I paused while letting the exhilaration and adrenaline run down a bit. “… you get it?”

Her head shook. “No,” she replied. “It… it was coming out of the… it was a–”

“I saw,” I confirmed. “At least, if it was anything like the thing that was behind you.”

Straightening, I looked up toward the spot where Columbus and Scout were. Giving them a thumbs up, I touched the pin on my jacket and connected to everyone. “Thanks for the heads up, Scout. Guys, we just got jumped by these… goblin… skeleton things that were–”

“Coming out of the walls?” Sean finished. “Yeah, we’ve seen them too. Avalon says they’re called… what?”

Avalon’s voice answered then. “Knockengerwicht. A German Heretic named them. It basically means skeleton-goblin.”

“And they… what,” Columbus started, “hide inside the walls and shit and then pop out?”

“It’s worse than that,” she explained in a tense voice. “They don’t just hide. They possess inanimate objects. Basically, most tribes of the things usually pick a car or a house or something, depending on how big the group is. Each of them take over a little bit of it and they control it. That’s where a lot of poltergeist stories come from. And it’s where the whole idea for things like cars that move on their own came from.”

“Right…” I began slowly. “But you said that a normal sized tribe of these things usually take over a car or at most a house. What does it mean if there’s enough to take over a whole cruise ship?”

“What does it mean, Chambers?” Avalon echoed before pausing briefly.

“It means we’re dealing with one of the biggest infestations I’ve ever heard of.”

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Second Hunt 16-02

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For some totally strange and obviously unexplainable reason, the Crossroads staff apparently didn’t think that sending our team off completely on our own for this hunt was a very good idea. Well, technically they didn’t send any of the teams on their own, but when they announced that fact, everyone else pretty much immediately looked straight at us. So their reasoning wasn’t exactly much of a secret.

Instead, each team was being escorted by two members of the security team and a teacher. In our case, that was Wyatt, one of the other security guys, and Professor Dare. They weren’t supposed to interact with us or actually help at all unless there was something went wrong with the hunt. Instead, they would stand nearby and keep an eye on everything that was happening. That way, they’d be there to intervene in case Trice or anyone else ended up  repeating their attack from the first hunt.

It was probably bad, but personally, I was almost hoping that at least Pace made an appearance. It would be a chance for me to grab the bitch and get that damn necklace away from her for Roxa. I couldn’t really think of any other way we were going to be able to get face to face with that girl again.

As for Wyatt, I had tried to make the case that he should stay with Koren instead, after everything that had happened. But he assured me that he had taken ‘measures’ to keep an eye on the other girl even if he wasn’t right there with her. I wasn’t sure what that meant, exactly, but he seemed about as confident as Wyatt ever really was. Plus, Professor Katarin was the teacher watching over that team, and one of their security escorts was Reid Rucker. So they were as safe as possible. At least as safe as we were.

My slightly drifting line of thought was interrupted by a elbow in my side before Avalon spoke under her breath in a voice that was so quiet, it barely made it to my ear, “Focus on the mission, Chambers.”

Somehow, I managed to blush twice. First, at the realization that my wandering thoughts had been obvious. And then again at the thought that Avalon had been paying enough attention to me to notice. Of course, if I let myself think about that too much, I’d start thinking about the fact that she’d actually called me Felicity for once. In the days since it had happened, her voice saying my name had never been that far from my mind. Just remembering it then was enough to bring a third blush to my face.

There was no question why my roommate was hyper-focused on this hunt. She’d only gotten off her crutches and been cleared for full action the day before. I was pretty sure she’d spent the rest of the day working out in the training room to catch up, even dragging Shiori along to have a sparring partner.

“Right,” I coughed, forcing myself not to dwell on… any of that. Especially not on how nice it felt for her to whisper to—no, Flick, focus. Shaking it off, I looked around the portal room in the Pathmaker building where the rest of the team and our escorts were waiting to pass through the next door and to our destination. “So what are we going after today? Cyclopses rampaging through Dodger Stadium?”

As soon as the words left my mouth, Wyatt whirled on his heel. The man’s eyes were wide as he demanded, “Why? Did you hear about an attack? Why weren’t we notified? Did you submit the right-”

“Easy, Wyatt,” Professor Dare put a hand gently on his shoulder. “Miss Chambers was simply suggesting a humorous hypothetical. She does not believe that there is any actual attack on the stadium.” To me, she added with a touch of obvious amusement, “It is, however, interesting that you would choose that particular structure at random, out of all that you could have. Interesting indeed.”

“Err, it is?” I blinked, looking around at everyone else. They all looked amused as well. Not just the other security guard, but my teammates as well, even Avalon. At least, as much as Avalon allowed herself to look amused in public with other people around. “Why? What exactly am I missing?”

It was Columbus who answered. “One of the largest Crossroads weapons and technology laboratories in North America is hidden under Dodger Stadium. They make all kinds of awesome things there.”

Nodding, Sean patted Vulcan on the head pointedly. “Yeah, like my buddy here. That’s where he was crea—born,” he amended with a look down at the mechanical dog. “That’s his, you know, birthplace.”

My mouth opened and shut at all that. “Crossroads has a Development lab under a baseball stadium?”

“Why do you think they don’t tear it down or rebuild it?” Sands put in then. “It’s like… the oldest baseball stadium in the western half of the country. Third oldest, period. Crossroads makes sure no one actually does anything to it because of all the ongoing experiments and active weapons that they’re working on.”

“Oh.” Coughing, I looked back to Professor Dare. “What about the other two stadiums that are older?”

“Wrigley Field belongs to Eden’s Garden,” she replied with a thoughtful look. “Though we’re not supposed to know. But as far as I’m aware, Fenway Park, the oldest, is from people being sentimental.”

People, I noticed immediately. She hadn’t called them Bystanders that time, she just called them ‘people.’ Somehow, I found that interesting, and took a moment to study the woman curiously.

The professor noticed me looking and met my gaze evenly. “Is something wrong, Miss Chambers?”

I shook my head quickly at that. “Oh, no. I just—um. So where are we going today, if not a stadium?”

Still, she eyed me for another couple seconds with obvious curiosity before straightening to address everyone. “Your mission this evening will take place on board the Sahara’s Camelot. It’s a cruise ship that went missing two weeks ago. We’ve located it, identified the threats aboard, and believe that they are within your ability to handle. Of course, if anything happens, we will be there to provide any assistance. As will your team mentor,” she nodded toward the corner where Deveron was standing.

“A cruise ship?” I blinked at that, suddenly even more interested than I already had been. “What about the passengers or the crew? I mean, are there, um, any survivors that we should be looking out for?”

The blonde woman shook her head once. “No. If there were innocent civilians still being hunted on that ship, we would not be playing games by waiting like this and sending in first-year trainees, Miss Chambers. The entire reason that we’ve decided to make this ship the location of one of your training hunts is the unique situation it presents. There are no innocents to worry about, and the ship itself is in the middle of the ocean. It’s safely separated from any possible further threat to more living civilians.”

Further threat. More living civilians. I noticed both of those terms, and knew what she was saying. There had been living, innocent people on that ship, but they were all dead by the time it was located. That’s why they didn’t mind sending just us in to deal with the threats, because there was no point to sending fully qualified and trained Heretics at that point. They might as well use it as a training tool.

And despite Professor Dare’s attempt to sound clinical, I could tell that it actually bothered her. There was a certain tightness around her lips and a narrowing of her eyes that proved she was genuinely upset that all of those people on that ship had been killed before the Heretics found it. She obviously hated it.

I’d checked in the history book. Virginia Dare, the first English child born in Americas, had been born in the year 1587. Four hundred and thirty years earlier. And even after all this time, the deaths of random civilians that she didn’t know still bothered her enough that I could notice her reaction.

Something else occurred to me then, and my eyes widened before I looked toward Scout. “Um.” Wincing, I tried to think of the best way to phrase this. “Are you sure this is the right… I mean, is it–”

Professor Dare’s voice was gentle. “Both Sands and Scout were told about this situation earlier and were asked if it would be too much. They declined the offer of an alternative hunting location.” Her gaze flicked that way before she added, “But if either of you have changed your minds on that…?”

The twins whispered briefly before Sands shook her head. “Nope.” She straightened pointedly, hand straying to catch her sister’s. “Scout says that stopping a monster on a boat would help her, not hurt.”

“Even if those civilians have already been killed, and you have no chance of saving them?” Dare asked.

I saw the flinch cross Scout’s face before she gave a single, firm nod. Her chin lifted a little as she set herself. Obviously, she was scared of going back onto a Stranger-filled ship in the middle of the ocean. Considering the memories that it would bring back, even if the ships in question were wildly different, I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d be able to be as brave as she was if our positions had been reversed.

Hell, even without that kind of traumatic memory, I wasn’t exactly doing that well with the idea of walking around a cruise ship full of dead people. It was a bit of a step up from ‘abandoned lake cabins.’

Beside me, Scout raised her hand before turning to whisper into Sands’ ear. The other girl listened and then spoke up. “Scout wants to know where you guys are going to be waiting and watching from.”

“Good question, Miss Mason.” Professor Dare nodded toward Scout before continuing. “The original investigating Heretics left a yacht close to the ship in question. Our transport will take us there. Then we will wait and observe the situation while your team takes the lifeboat over to the cruise ship itself.

“We will also,” she went on immediately before anyone could say anything else about it, “be monitoring your progress through other means as well. Suffice to say, we will have eyes on all of you at all times, and we will be close enough to intervene should the situation grow out of control. For the most part, however, conducting this hunt and handling the threats that present themselves is up to you.”

“What about Deveron?” Columbus asked even as my mouth was opening to do the same thing. He gestured toward the (much) older boy in the corner. “Is he staying back on the Heretic yacht too?”

Before Professor Dare could respond, Deveron shook his head. “No,” he said flatly. “I’ll be on the ship with the rest of you. But I’ll stay out of the way, up near the lifeboat. You’ll get to do the hunt by yourself unless you ask for help.” Smirking just a little bit, he added, “You remember how it works?”

Columbus nodded easily. “Yeah, sure. We get a ten percent bonus for not involving you at all. If we have to ask for help with identifying them or anything else that has to do with knowledge, we lose five percent of the bonus. If we have to ask for you to help physically, then we lose the other five percent.”

“Indeed,” Professor Dare confirmed. “And should you need to ask us what creatures you are facing in the event that Mr. Adams fails to be able to identify them, you will lose ten percent from your final score. But remember, do not let that entirely dissuade you, because if you fail in your hunt specifically because you were unable to identify the threats and refused to request that information, you will lose twenty percent from your final score. In the long run, you will receive a better score if you ask for help and complete your mission, than if you fail to ask for help and thus fail in your mission because of it.”

While we all nodded quickly to that, Wyatt started to hand out the same communication pins that we had used during the first hunt (and also when we had been breaking into the security office at school). “Take them, take them,” he encouraged. “I’ve added my own enchantment to improve the pins.”

Blinking up at that as I took one of them and fixed it to my uniform, I asked, “What enchantment?”

The others looked just as curious as I was, but Wyatt shook his head while lowering his voice. “Shh. It’s a secret improvement. They could be listening. They are listening. So shush.” Raising his voice then, he spoke with the voice of one of the worst actors I had ever heard. “No… I didn’t say… enchantment. I said… encampment. Good luck dispatching this encampment of monsters on that ship. Yes, that’s it.”

Then, as we all stared at him, Wyatt silently gestured toward the pins we had put on. His hand indicated each of us before pointing back to the pin that he wore. He put his fingers close to it and mimed pressing it before quickly stepping over to grab me by the shoulders. The (rightfully) paranoid man tugged me over to him, then did the same to each of the rest of the team. Then he gestured to the pin again and gave us another one of those wide, goofy and incredibly endearing buck-toothed smiles.

It took me a second before I realized what he was saying. Or rather, what he was pantomiming. Then I got it. Apparently, he had included an emergency teleport system into the communicator pins. When he activated it, the spell would transport the other pins (as well as anyone wearing them) straight back to where he was. So if we got in trouble, he could immediately yank us out of it and back to safety.

Well, that was useful. And it made me wonder why that wasn’t just standard practice at this point.

“Come,” Professor Dare instructed, walking past us to put her hand into the black circle next to the door on the other side of the portal room from the entrance. As the door cycled to our destination, she looked back to the rest of us with a somber look. “As I said, you should all be able to handle this situation. But it is dangerous. And I will warn you now that you will see the bodies of the people that we were unable to save. Do not let that discourage you too much. It is not your fault. Instead, let it prompt all of you to learn to fight better, and to eventually graduate so that we have more Heretics available to hunt these monsters before they have time to engage in such vicious and violent attacks.”

Her voice softened. “That said, if any of you need to take a break because of the bodies you find, do not be ashamed of asking for it. There will be no penalty for such a request, and no one will shame you for it. This will, sadly, not be the worst sight you witness as Heretics. But no one can see this kind of thing without being affected. At least,” she amended softly, “No one whom I would wish to associate with.”

By that point, the portal had finished cycling, the air around us growing chillier. She withdrew her hand from the black circle and opened the door, gesturing for us to step through. So, taking a breath, I did so.

Or I started to, anyway. Before I could actually make it through the doorway, Wyatt pretty much pushed his way in front of me and went through first. He was there for a couple seconds before poking his head back through and giving the rest of us the okay sign. “You can come through now!”

On the other side of the doorway, I found myself standing on the deck of the yacht, as if I had just come through the door of the bridge or cockpit or whatever it was called on boats. Again, raised in Wyoming.

For a moment, I took in the sight around me. The sky was dark, and the ocean below the yacht was even darker. It looked sinister the way the ocean around the Crossroads island never really did. Even the chilly wind seemed to be trying to convince us to turn away, to go back.

Slowly, I raised my gaze to take in the sight of our actual destination. A soft gasp escaped me at the sheer size of the ship. To my completely uneducated eyes, the Sahara’s Camelot was freaking enormous. As long as almost three football fields, and with at least eight floors (or decks) above the main deck and who knew how many below. The thing looked positively gigantic. And evil. Maybe in the sunlight on a calm ocean, with laughing and partying guests all over its many decks, the ship would have looked inviting. But right now, I couldn’t think of a more sinister-looking place I’d ever seen.

And we were supposed to search the whole place.

“A ghost ship,” Columbus muttered from beside me after he and the others had come out. “We’re going on a god damn ghost ship.”

“Well,” Avalon spoke up, sounding almost perky for her at the prospect as she headed straight for the side where the lifeboat was waiting. “We better get over there then. Hurry up.”

Sean shook his head woefully. “You see what happens when she gets cooped up for weeks on crutches? Girl gets gung-ho about the first chance she gets to actually kill some bad guys again.”

Instead of responding to him, I glanced back to the twins. “You guys sure you’re all right? Scout?”

They both hesitated, and I saw the tenseness in the silent girl herself. But she gave a slight nod before pointedly stepping over to join Avalon at the boat.

“Professor,” I spoke quietly to Dare, my eyes trying to convey what I couldn’t say.

“We know,” the woman replied softly. “Trust me, we know. But better this happen now, in a controlled environment that we are right here for. If anything goes wrong or it starts to be too much, we will intervene. I promise.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded before starting over to join the rest of my team. “Well guys, I guess we should get our butts over there, huh?

“Those monsters won’t slay themselves.”

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