Sean

Interlude 40A – A Funeral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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A Learning Experience 17-04

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Just a quick note. There was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Shiori and Asenath posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t read it yet, feel free to click the previous chapter button above. 🙂

“You are so lucky, I can’t decide if I wanna hug you and jump up and down or punch you in the arm.”

In response to Sands’ words, I winked at her from the other side of the couch in the lounge where the two of us were watching Columbus and Sean go after each other in an increasingly erratic and intense game of pool. “If you hug tight enough, maybe it’ll be just like being punched. So you get the best of both worlds.” Pausing, I amended, “I mean, no, go for the nice hug. I don’t deserve to be punched.”

It was Wednesday afternoon, the day after my first lesson with Gaia. Which, obviously, was what Sands was talking about. Now she shook her head. “Maybe not, but seriously, dude. Do you have any idea how cool it is? Special tutoring sessions with Baroness Sinclaire. That’s like… like… Columbus, help!”

Without looking away from where he was lining up his next shot, Columbus asked, “Help with what?”

Sands scooted on the couch, leaning up to look that way. “I need a really important Bystander sports star that it would be amazing to learn from. You know, to match Flick’s thing with the headmistress.”

In response, Columbus finally turned his head to peer over his shoulder at the girl. “And exactly what part of my room full of comic books and honestly probably disturbingly complete knowledge of Star Wars trivia makes you think I’d have the slightest idea of a good example of a current sports hero?”

Snorting in spite of myself, I waved a hand for him to go back to his game. “I get the point, believe me.” Pausing then, I resisted the urge to lower my voice. There was still no reason to go shouting about what was going on, but for once, my meetings with Gaia didn’t actually have to be a complete secret. After all, people generally knew that a lot of stuff had happened involving me. They knew that some important Stranger had invaded the school grounds in an attempt to attack me. So we didn’t have to keep the fact that I was meeting with Gaia as completely secret as some of the other things.

So, instead of hushing everyone like my paranoid mind wanted to right then, I cleared my throat and shrugged. “It’s not that big of a deal. I haven’t even managed to make the spell thing work yet.”

From the other side of the room, a voice spoke up. “What spell thing?” Erin Redcliffe, Vanessa’s roommate, was walking our way with Rudolph and Tristan on either side of her. Vanessa herself was bringing up the rear, her nose buried in a thick leather-bound book with weird symbols on the front.

Sands hesitated, but I shrugged and answered, “The headmistress is giving me a little um, help. You know, so maybe even if things keep going wrong, they don’t have to call in the cavalry so much.”

“Sweet!” The electric-blue haired girl pumped her fist with a grin. “Extra tutoring from the Baronness?”

“You mean you’re not jealous?” I asked after a momentary hesitation, looking at her curiously.

“Are you kidding?” Erin retorted. “I’m so jealous, I almost wish I could stuff you in a closet and borrow a masker to go out and take your place. But I’m pretty sure the headmistress would figure it out.” Pausing then, she added with a sheepish smile, “Oh, and also because it would be bad. Very bad.”

There was a pause as she seemed to think about it for another moment before shrugging. “But you know, the way I see it, at least someone gets to learn from her. I can be jealous of you without being, like, mad or pissed off about it. I wish I had the chance, but I’m not gonna rip your head off for it.”

“Maybe you should be her teammate then,” Sands teased while nudging me with her foot. “Cuz I’m still seriously considering that whole ‘take a masker after stuffing her in a closet’ thing. That sounds like a good plan.” Brightening, she added, “And hey, I could blame the whole thing on you if it comes out.”

Good, this was good. It helped distract me from the fact that I was temporarily weaponless. Well, okay, I still had the knife from my mother of course. But not my staff. Avalon had taken it early that morning, shortly before our daily workout. She’d said something about upgrades, promising that I’d get it back soon and that it’d be worth it in the end. Then the girl had gone into great detail about how she’d kill me herself if I managed to get myself in any actual trouble while my weapon was out of my hands.

Tristan put a hand on Erin’s back, grinning. “Hey, no making our team look bad. We’re already losing Rudolph.” His grin faltered as he glanced to the boy himself. “You really didn’t have to do that, man.”

“Do what?” I asked, blinking back and forth between hefty boy with white-blonde hair and Tristan.

Rudolph gave an embarrassed shrug. “It’s not a big deal. Since our team had seven people with Tristan and Paul’s team’s down to five with Roxa gone, they said we needed to move someone over there. They were gonna move Tristan since he’s the newest, but I said I’d go instead so he could stay with Vanessa.”

“Aww.” Hopping to my feet, I gave the boy a hug. “That’s amazing, Rudolph.” Even as a pang of guilt about not being able to help Roxa yet so she could come back (not to mention the fact that the whole reason she had to stay away in the first place was because of my inability to think ahead and warn Tristan about what was about to happen) struck me, I forced it aside and tried to focus on the positive. Releasing the uncomfortable looking Rudolph, I gave him an easy smile and teased, “I hope you’re not stepping into Roxa’s position everywhere. I think Jazz might object to having you as a roommate.”

Vanessa giggled a little bit, finally pulling her nose out of her book to look at me. The girl didn’t say anything, though she did step a little bit closer to Tristan while giving me a quick nod of thanks.

I wondered if she had any clue just how much I kept checking out her twin brother in spite of myself.

Rudolph, for his part, blushed deeply before giving one of his trademark languid shrugs. “No big.”

That was Rudolph. Nothing was ‘big.’ He did all the work that he had to do, but he never really showed much excitement or enthusiasm toward anything. He did the bare minimum in the easiest possible way.

Unfortunately, that was the moment that the worst member of Vanessa’s team made his own appearance. Zeke stepped into the room and immediately made a beeline toward us. “Good,” the boy with the wildly tousled brown hair announced as soon as he was close. “You’re not hiding somewhere.”

After looking both ways, I put my hand to my chest and blinked at him. “Me? Why would I be hiding?”

“Yeah, Zeke,” Erin put in. “Why would she be hiding? And try to not to be racist with your answer.”

“We’re both white, it can’t be ra–” the boy started to retort before heaving a sigh that I had a feeling came a lot when he interacted with his team. “Whatever. I just meant I’m glad it was easy to find you.”

Grinning at him, I asked, “Was that so hard to say? You came about the project for Carfried, right?”

Still standing stiffly, Zeke gave a short, quick nod. “You heard what he said today. We’ve got until Friday to make it work. So if you’re not too busy being kidnapped or wandering into danger, it’d be nice if we could go practice.” As he finished talking, the boy reached up to take off his glasses and cleaned them with a handkerchief from the inside pocket of his uniform jacket. If I hadn’t known any better, I would’ve guessed that he was parodying something incredibly British. But no, that was just Zeke.

He did have a point though, we needed to get that done. So rather than snark, I just gave him a thumbs up. “Sure, let’s get this thing done.” Glancing back to Sands, I added, “Lemme know who wins?”

Even as the other girl was nodding, Sean called out from the pool table. “Spoilers, it’s gonna be me.”

“Well, whoever it is,” Tristan put in, “they’ll only be reigning champion for about five minutes or so.”

Sands raised an eyebrow at that, looking interested. “Why, you gonna challenge them or something?”

“Me?” Tristan smirked, shaking his head. “No.” Reaching back, he caught hold of his sister’s arm and tugged her out in front of him as the girl gave a soft yelp of surprise. “Nessa. She’ll take on the winner.”

Poor Vanessa blinked rapidly, still catching up with what was going on and exactly what her brother was volunteering her for. Then a soft pink blush crossed her face. “I—what? I—I’m not—that’s not…”

“Dude, yeah!” Erin blurted, her own smile widening. “We’ve seen you play around with all that stuff. All that stuff you were going on about with the whole angle and momentum thing. You’ll kick ass!”

While poor Vanessa was clearly trying to figure out how to deal with both her roommate and her brother pushing her to ‘kick the ass’ of whoever won Sean and Columbus’s match, I glanced toward Zeke. I expected to find the boy looking annoyed, as usual. Instead, his gaze was fixed past me with a weird sort of wistful expression, and I turned my head slightly to see what, exactly, he was looking at.

Sands. His gaze was fixed on Sands, who was laughing as she helped try to coax Vanessa into accepting the invitation to play pool. As the petite brunette loudly pointed out that Vanessa needed to ‘remind the boys who was in charge’, Zeke was watching her with a look that screamed twitterpated.

As that realization struck me, my mouth opened. But before I could say anything (not that I knew exactly what I was going to say anyway), a new voice called out from the doorway. “Hey, Flickster!”

Blinking, I turned to find Nevada by the door. She gave me a quick wave. “Mind if we talk for a sec?”

Ignoring Zeke’s mumble about how we were never gonna get to work, I nodded. “Oh, sure, Prof—Nevada.” To my project partner, I added, “Sorry, it’ll just take a second. Then we can work, I promise.”

Nevada led me out of the lounge and past the doors that led into the cafeteria, to the exit. Meanwhile, I kept trying to tell myself to stop noticing exactly how much bounce there was whenever the blonde woman moved. Not that it actually helped very much, because my brain was a dirty, dirty traitor.

Once we were out on the grass behind the building, she finally turned and reached down to the silver bracelet on her wrist. Tossing it aside, she waited while the bracelet reshaped itself into its tall metal crate form before clearing her throat as she looked back to me. “So like, Avalon and Columbus were asking about upgrades for your staff,” Nevada explained. “I assume you already knew about all that.”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “They’ve been trying to help since… you know, all that stuff.” I flinched at the thought of everything that had happened in such a short period of time. Then I blinked up, my eyes widening a bit. “They didn’t do anything wrong, did they? Because it’s totally all my-”

Nevada laughed, head shaking. “Relax, Flick, no one’s in trouble. You knew Avalon had your staff?”

Again, I nodded. “She was borrowing it to do some work. She said she had an idea about how to make it better in case–” Coughing, I amended that in mid-sentence. “I mean, when something else happens.”

“Yeah, good point,” Nevada agreed before reaching into her storage bin. “Anyway, they had ideas, but they’re still learning and they didn’t wanna make you wait for years before you got that upgrade. Besides, Avalon’s been busy upgrading her own weapons, and Columbus… well, he’s got some super-duper secret project of his own. So–” She tugged out my staff and held it up. “They asked me to help out a bit. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Mind?” I stared at her. “You went out of your way to help, and you think I’d mind? You’re crazy.”

Laughing at that, Nevada offered a shrug. “You’d be surprised. Some Heretics get really touchy about who handles their weapons. It’s kind of a personal thing. But Avalon insisted you’d be okay with it.”

“I am, totally,” I confirmed quickly before looking at the staff in her hand. “But you already managed to do something with it? I mean damn, Valley just took the staff this morning. You work fast.”

Nevada gave me a dazzling Barbie smile. “Well, I am totally awesome. But like, that’s not how it works. See, they talked to me like two weeks ago, and I’ve been working on other kinetic-burst staffs. You know, figuring out what would work and what wouldn’t. So then, like, once it was all done and I had the plans fixed up, all I needed was your actual staff to put it all together. That’s how we do it.”

“Oh.” I coughed, flushing. “I guess that makes sense, doing all the steps of the upgrade ahead of time and then just putting it together. Heretics probably really don’t like losing access to their weapons.”

She nodded. “Exactly. There’s not a living Heretic out there that would agree to hand over their weapon for days at a time. So we just get used to tinkering with copies until we know exactly what we’re doing, then take the weapon for as short a time as possible. Which, for you, was just a few hours.” She lifted the staff, waving it at me before holding the weapon out. “Take it, see how different it feels. The weight might be a little bit more than it used to be, but it shouldn’t be too bad once you swing it a few times.”

Curiously, I took the staff and hefted it, passing the thing from one hand to the other before giving it an experimental spin. “Yeah,” I nodded slowly. “I guess it does feel a tiny bit heavier, but it’s not too bad.”

The woman’s grin brightened even more, dazzling me. “Awesome! So, two different upgrades for this thing.”

“Two?” I echoed, blinking in surprise before looking down at the weapon in my hand. “It still looks the same.”

Nevada winked at me. “It’s supposed to.” Coughing, she pointed to the case clipped to my belt. “That’s the thing for the sand that Columbus and Avalon finished back in track training, right?” When I nodded, she moved her hand to point to the staff. “See that tiny button right there?”

Curious, I turned the weapon over to find where she was pointing. Sure enough, there was a little spot where my left thumb generally went that could be pushed in with a little bit of pressure. “Got it.”

“Press it,” Nevada instructed with an eager smile, clearly anxious for me to see what she’d done.

So, I did. As I pressed the button, the staff hummed a little in my hands and a small dark red spot of energy appeared at the end of it. And through that glowing spot, I could feel… sand? Blinking, I extended my focus and gave an experimental tug. Sure enough, as I did, a cloud of the stuff burst out of the end of the staff, where the glowing red spot was.

“It’s a short-distance portal,” the Development Track advisor informed me. “It links directly to that thing on your belt. So when that runs out of sand, so does the staff. I just thought it’d be good for you to have quick access to it without letting go of your weapon. Plus, now you can incorporate all that sand flying around into your fighting style.”

Unable to help the gleeful noise that escaped me, I experimented a little by spinning the staff and pulling sand in and out through the tiny portal. It was glorious, and I could already think of ways to use my sand now that I didn’t have to let go of the staff and reach down to my belt to do it.

“Nevada, this is—this is… you didn’t have to—I mean, you’re amazing.”

“Aww, you don’t have to butter me up,” the woman teased. “I’ll show you the other thing.”

I blinked once. “Other—oh! You said there was something else? Wait, there’s more?”

“Of course there’s more.” Nevada scoffed at me. “Hold both ends up near the tips. Yeah, like that. Now push in, then pull out again real quick.”

After following her directions, I felt the staff shift in my grip. Yelping a little, I held it up while the ends bent backward and flared a little bit. Meanwhile, the center slid around while a small indent appeared at about the mid-point. Once the staff was done shifting around into a curved shape, a slender strand of glowing string-like energy extended from the one tip down to the other. it wasn’t a staff anymore. Now it was a–

“Bow!” Nevada announced. She was grinning again, laughter clearly right on the tip of her tongue as she gave me the punchline. “Get it? It’s a Bowstaff. Bowstaff!

Eyes widening, I touched the glowing energy strand that functioned as the bowstring. It hummed under my touch.

“The string’s made out of the same kinetic energy that you use when you make your mines or whatever,” Nevada explained with obvious eagerness. “Now pinch the string right there where an arrow should be.”

Slowly, I followed her instructions. As I pinched the string, another glowing energy construct appeared. An arrow made out of the same glowing kinetic energy. I gasped, slowly pulling back at the arrow along with the string.

It was a bow. It worked just like a bow. Not that I’d had a lot of experience with them, but still.

The older blonde continued quickly. “It uses the same charging system as the staff part, so you can only fire a few at a time before it needs to recharge. Or you can charge up one really powerful shot instead. But your friends said that you really could use some kind of ranged option, so this seemed like the best way to go.”

“It’s… it’s great,” I managed, staring at the energy arrow that I’d pulled back. “Though I don’t really know how to use a bow very much…”

“You’ll just need to get some tutoring help to use it right.” Nevada agreed while helping me ease the string back down until the arrow disappeared. “Hey, Rudolph uses a bow. Maybe he’ll help you out.”

“I’ll um, I’ll ask him,” I agreed quietly, staring at that weapon. At the older woman’s suggestion, I gave it a quick shake up and down, and the bow reshaped itself back into my familiar staff.

“Nevada, I–” Something caught in my throat, and I quickly hugged the woman. “I wish I knew how to repay you.”

For a second, she stiffened under the hug. Then I felt her relax, her voice soft. “It’s no problem, Flick. I don’t want anything to happen to you. But if you really want to pay me back, do me a favor.

“Never use the word ‘wish’ around me again.”

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First Steps 2-01

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I was awoken the next morning by the sound of a knock at the door. Fumbling my way out from under the twisted up blankets that I had somehow managed to tie in knots around myself as I slept, I fell out of the bed with a yelp. Flushing, I glanced to the other side of the room, only to find that the black wall that Avalon’s privacy screen had erected was gone. Equally gone was my roommate herself. The bed was empty and neatly made to what looked like military specifications. Actually, I was kind of surprised that there wasn’t a mint sitting on the pillow, to be perfectly honest.

Another knock reminded me of why I was awake, and I picked myself off the floor. Yawning, I glanced down at myself to make sure I looked vaguely presentable before heading over to open it a crack.

Sands stood on the other side, waving as the door opened. She wore a tee shirt with the name Crossroads Academy written in purple on the front and a pair of black shorts with identical violet trim going up the sides. She was also holding a clothing bag in one hand, offering it to me. “Heya, teammate. Ready for morning exercise? Oh, and here’s your uniforms. They were sitting by your door.”

Blinking, I opened the door the rest of the way and took the offered bag. “Morning exercise?”

The other girl’s head bobbed once. “Sure. You know, that thing that Deveron was supposed to talk to us about, if he didn’t, uhhh…”

“Suck ass as a mentor?” I offered.

“Yeah, that one.” Sands gestured in agreement. “Anyway, we’ve got general exercise every weekday morning before shower and breakfast. You can really do it at any point between five and seven, but you have to get half an hour in. Scout and I figured you might want to go together, since your roommate’s already done.”

“Avalon did her exercise already?” I asked while stepping back into the room. “Come on in.”

Sands came into the room, trailed after by her sister. Scout was munching on a banana, and waved to me without meeting my gaze. Her attention seemed firmly riveted to our apparently fascinating floor. Sands, on the other hand, groaned. “Yeah, Sean said she was in there when he showed up, and she was still there when Scout and I went past. Seriously, it’s half an hour of required exercise and she’s been there for at least an hour and a half. It’s like she’s trying to break a record or something.”

“Maybe she just really likes to exercise?” I suggested while opening the bag that the other girl had brought. Digging through it, I found three different uniform sets with the purple trim, as well as two sets of the same workout clothes that the twins were wearing. “Or maybe she’s really a supervillain and her dastardly plan is to make herself look so perfect that the universe itself collapses out of envy.”

Snorting, Sands shook her head. “C’mon, you don’t wanna miss breakfast on the first day.”

My stomach growled at the very implication, and I quickly changed clothes before nodding. “Right, let’s get this workout done then, before I start eating the weights instead of lifting them.”

On my way out, I stopped to grab Herbie, tossing him up into the air before catching him. “Don’t worry, buddy, I wouldn’t leave you alone in the room all day. You’d get too lonely.”

Before I reached the door, a hand caught my sleeve. Glancing over to find Scout standing there with her hand on me, I blinked. “Oh hey, what’s up?”

In answer, the girl released my sleeve before reaching into her pocket to take out a small box. She presented it to me without ever saying anything, a hesitant smile touching her face.

I took the offered box and opened it, tilting my head at the contents. There were a pair of cute googly eyes and a bottle of super glue. It took me a second before I realized. “For Herbie?”

The other girl smiled faintly, half hidden behind her lowered head, and nodded shyly, still silent.

“Hey, thanks, Scout.” I returned her smile. “I’ll put the eyes on when we get down there. That way he can dry while we’re doing the workout. Where’d you find this stuff anyway?”

Rather than answer, the girl visibly froze. She went completely still for a few seconds before shrugging.

“Yeah,” Sands shook her head. “She wouldn’t tell me either. I guess there’s some secrets even I don’t merit. All I know is that she had it when she came back with that banana.”

Seeing the uncomfortable look on the shy girl’s face, I relented. “Right, you go ahead and keep your secret crafting supplies store or whatever it is. Thanks anyway, Scout.”

She nodded, clearly relieved to have the attention off herself, and the three of us headed down to the gym. We had just left the dorm and were making our way across the grass toward the other building when Sands looked toward me. “So how’d your first night go? Did you and Avalon have a fight or something? Is that why she’s spent all morning in the gym?”

“A fight?” I shook my head. “We didn’t talk enough to have a fight. She showed me the privacy screen and then never turned it off. I don’t think she’s interested in earning any awards for being a stunning conversationalist. But, you know, maybe I’ll win her over with a midnight pillow fight.”

“Now see?” Another voice spoke, and I turned to see Columbus and Sean stroll up. The latter was talking. “This is a conversation that I would like to be a part of. Tell me more about this pillow fight.”

Rolling my eyes, I replied, “We’re just talking about how I can get my roommate to open up.” After hesitating for a second, I added, “She’s got the same last name as the Headmistress, are they related?”

A collection of shrugs went around before Columbus offered, “Maybe she’s her daughter?”

I shrugged back, then focused on the twins. “You guys grew up here, don’t you know her?”

“Nope,” Sands replied. “Never seen her before the last couple days. Sorry. I don’t think she’s Headmistress Sinclaire’s kid though. Like I said, we grew up here and she never said anything about having a daughter. Which, we might miss some things, but I’m pretty sure we would’ve noticed that.”

“Huh…” Columbus frowned thoughtfully. “Maybe the name thing is a coincidence?”

Beside me, Sean shook his head, sending his shaggy hair flying back and forth. “Dude, we’re living at a damn magic school so we can learn how to fight monsters. I’m pretty sure thinking that anything is a coincidence at this point is just begging for a giant, ‘you’re wrong’ shaped monster to come stomping through the campus, breathing fire on everyone who ever says things like ‘how bad can it be?’”

******

“This is not a game. I want every last one of you to repeat that back to me. Say it loud.”

It was a couple hours later. I’d finished the brief workout with the twins and Columbus (Sean had already finished his), then showered and changed into the school uniform before having breakfast. Now we had been joined by Avalon and the six of us were in our first class of the day: self defense.

Professor Katarin, the positively massive teacher that reminded me of the guy that had played the prisoner in The Green Mile, stood at the front of the room. It was a different gym from the one that we had exercised in that morning. This one was larger, with plenty of room for at least four different active sparring matches. Mirrors lined every wall, and the floor was padded to the point that it was kind of fun to bounce up and down on it. There were also a handful of what looked like training dummies spread throughout the room, along with six enormous trunks arrayed behind the man that he had wheeled in two at a time before calling everyone to line up in front of him.

There were about three full teams in this particular class, or eighteen students. I recognized some from orientation the day before, but most were new faces. All of us were clearly still adjusting to this place.

Katarin waited there while everyone dutifully repeated the words back to him. Then he shook his head. “Louder. I want you to say it and mean it! This is not a game! Say it again! This is not a game!”

Finally, after it was all but screamed back at him, the man nodded in satisfaction. “Good. Now that you’ve all said that, there won’t be any excuses when I expel the first one of you that acts like this is a game. And I will, believe me. If I see any of you messing around with the stuff in here, or goofing off while we’re trying to learn, or doing anything that could end with you or one of your classmates getting hurt, you’re out of here. I don’t mean out of this class, I mean out of this school. You will never be a part of this again. Do you understand me? Harkess, do you think I’m kidding?”

One of the other bystander-kin students, Malcolm, shook his head while speaking loudly. “No, sir.”

“What about you, Porter?” Professor Katarin was focused not on Columbus, but his foster sister Shiori.

The Asian girl flushed at the attention before shaking her head quickly. “No, sir, you’re not kidding.”

“Damn straight I’m not.” The big man let his gaze move over all of us. “You do not get three strikes in this class. You fuck around, you’re out. I will not teach students who can’t take this seriously. You’ll be a danger to yourselves, to your fellow students, and to everyone we’re trying to protect. Is that clear?”

After a chorus of agreement, Katarin nodded in satisfaction. “In that case, let’s get started. When I call your name, come up here. The rest of you can talk among yourselves until we get all this sorted out.”

He started with one of the male students from Shiori’s team, calling the boy around to the other side of the large trunks. From the look of things, he was digging through the trunks while talking to the boy.

“What’s all this about?” I turned to ask Sands in a quiet voice.

“Weapon selection,” she replied, staring with wide eyes toward the front of the room. Her voice was hushed with awe. “You have no idea how long we’ve been waiting for our chance at this. Every year, over and over, we just watch everyone else get their weapons. Now it’s our turn.”

Blinking at the awe and anticipation in her voice, I looked toward Columbus and Sean. “Come again?”

“Weapon selection,” Sean repeated Sands’ words while grinning. He was clearly excited too, though he did a slightly better job of keeping cool about it. “See, a heretic’s weapon is like… a big deal. ”

“What they’re trying to say,” the voice of Avalon intoned coolly from behind me. “Is that a heretic’s weapon is their life. We learn to do everything with it, and the weapon helps define who you are.”

I coughed. “Oh, right, of course they’re giving us weapons. Sorry, kind of still getting used to going from a school where making a finger gun at someone was grounds for suspension.”

Avalon’s eyes rolled. “Yeah, people are stupid. Big surprise. That’s not exactly a new concept. Point is, this is a big deal. Whatever Katarin up there matches you with, that’s it. Gun, blade, bow, whatever it ends up being, that’s your weapon for life. It’s bonded to you and only you. It gets stronger as you do. You’ll learn to fight with it, and to channel the powers you gain through it. The weapon is your outlet, your implement to use a lot of the skills that you’ll learn here. That’s why he’s stressing the safety so much. Because they can’t just take it away at the end of classes. The whole point is that you carry it around with you everywhere. It never leaves your side, ever. It’s a part of you for life. Understand?”

Columbus whistled low. “Did you say guns? They actually use guns here?”

Avalon gave him a dirty look for that one. “Of course we use guns. We use everything that can kill those monsters. They may not be the kind of guns you’re used to, but that’s because once humans got to the musket, Developer Heretics went off in their own direction for making it better. They’re not mass produced, every Heretic weapon is hand-made, one at a time by Developers who put their heart and soul into what they’re making. Then they’re put into those crates and brought out to be matched against a new student. Once you’re matched to a weapon, that’s it. Unless something happens, and believe me, it’s really hard to break a Heretic weapon, it’s yours until you die. Then they bury you with it.”

At that point, Katarin called for Sands. The other girl gave me a quick, eager smile before schooling her expression to look as calm as possible as she walked to the front. She could not, apparently, stop herself from skipping just a little bit.

“Guess this is a pretty big deal for you two, huh?” I asked Scout, nudging the girl a little bit. I knew she was shy and didn’t talk much, but I was curious enough to prod her slightly. “Waited a long time?”

The quiet twin hesitated before nodding. Her gaze flicked up to me every so briefly before she looked away, back to the front of the room where her sister was. Even that brief eye contact made her blush. It made me wonder why she was so painfully shy and withdrawn. The curiosity bubbled up in me almost against my will. I wanted to talk to the girl, wanted to ask her about herself and get her to open up. But I wasn’t sure how to do that. I wasn’t sure exactly how much I should push or leave alone. There was probably a very good reason that she didn’t do much talking, and curious as I was, I shouldn’t pry.

But that didn’t stop me from wanting to. I wanted to pry into that, into why Avalon was always in such a bad mood even though she didn’t really seem to be that bad of a person, what her relationship with the Headmistress was, why Deveron was still our mentor even though he was a completely useless and lazy pain in the ass, what exactly had made the vote about my inclusion in the school so close that the Headmistress had been forced to break the tie, and everything else. I definitely wanted to know what the connection was between the Headmistress and the coward that had been my ancestor. I wanted to know all of those things and more, but I wasn’t yet sure how to go about getting those answers.

If it came down to it, I supposed I could just find the woman and ask her about what I’d seen. I’d wait a few days before trying that though, and give things around here a chance to settle into a routine. Or at least as much of a routine as a school where we were handed deadly weapons on the first day could be.

Scout was called next, and I looked up to see Sands returning with what looked like a heavy-duty morning star held tight in one hand. The handle was black, the head of the weapon silver, and the assorted razor-sharp spikes on it were red. She was holding it like a treasured present, something she had waited most of her life to receive after watching year after year of older students get theirs.

“Construction Mace?” Sean asked, receiving a nod from the clearly proud Sands.

I looked back and forth between them, then focused on the weapon. “What’s a Construction Mace?”

“It makes walls,” Sands explained. “See, it just sort of makes walls, floors, whatever, flat surfaces in any orientation. Smash something while holding the trigger and it sort of, absorbs that type of material to make the walls out of.”

My mouth opened and then shut. “Are you serious? How? Where does the material for the walls come from? What produces it? Where does this thing store the material? What–”

“Magic, Flick,” she intoned with a wink. “It’s magic.”

Before long, Scout also returned with what looked like the biggest freaking sniper rifle I’d ever seen in my life. The thing was positively enormous, dwarfing Scout herself. As Avalon had said, it also looked a lot more… muskety than any modern rifle, though the scope on it was pretty impressive. The best way I could describe the whole thing was that it looked like a steampunk version of a sniper rifle, with all kinds of tubes, coils, and other doodads lining the thing. The scope part had multiple lenses all spaced out along the top of it that raised or lowered into place depending on how far she wanted the scope to reach.

“Wow,” I blinked between Sands and Scout. “So you got a weapon that makes you get right up close to people and you got one that makes you stay far away from them.”

“That’s right,” Sands nudged her sister. “I smack ’em in the face and Scout covers me.”

I started to ask if Scout thought she could even fire that thing, but before I could, Katarin called my name. Under the curious gaze of the rest of the class, I made my way to the front where the man was waiting. “Uh, hi, sir. I just thought you should know, the deadliest weapon I’ve held in my hand up to this point was a steak knife. So, you know, I really don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Good,” the big man rumbled. “You knowing that is the best first step. Keep that in mind and don’t do anything stupid with this thing when I hand it to you. Now… let’s see, do you think you’d be more comfortable with something that let you get close, or something that’s more of a distance weapon? Don’t overthink it, just go with your first instinct and we’ll see what matches you.”

I froze for a second. Go with my first instinct? Easy for him to say, after everything the others had said about how this was a choice that would stick with me for the rest of my life. “Umm, I think I’d feel better with something… close. That feels right.” At least I hoped it did.

Nodding, Katarin turned to open the first three storage trunks. “Take a look. Take out a few, hold them in your hand, see what feels the most natural. Don’t worry, if the weapon that’s meant for you is something else, you’ll know. You’ll feel the connection when it’s there, trust me. And trust yourself.”

Emboldened a bit by his encouragement, I stepped up to the first chest and looked inside. Swords, axes, daggers, staves, and more all lined the interior. Slowly, I ran my hand along them. My fingers found a nice looking scimitar, but when I lifted it from the trunk, I knew it was wrong. It didn’t feel right. I couldn’t really explain it, but the weapon didn’t fit me. It felt awkward in my grip and I put it down almost immediately.

I tried a few other weapons in the crate, but nothing really called out to me. Gradually, I moved on to the second one. More weapons, some of which I didn’t even recognize. There was something that looked sort of like a nunchaku, except that there were three handles instead of two, all with cord between them. Beside that were a couple of weapons that were even stranger. Basically they looked like hand-held sickles with the curved blade, along with a straight blade extending in the opposite direction from the base of the curved one, and a smaller knife-like blade down near the handle.

“Hunga Munga,” Katarin informed me. “African throwing weapon. How does it feel?”

I paused, letting my fingers close around the handle. There was something… almost there, and I let my eyes close to focus on it for a few seconds before shaking my head. “It’s close, I think. I feel… something. But I don’t think they fit me.” I bit my lip and looked up then. “Am I just over thinking it?”

“Possibly,” he allowed. “But let’s see if something else suits you better.”

Slowly, I moved my hands further, trying a couple of different weapons. Nothing in the second chest was perfect, or even felt as close to right as those blades had.

Finally, I moved on to the third chest. My gaze passed over several weapons before landing on a long staff set near the back. As my eyes landed on the weapon, I paused. Something, a feeling of familiarity that I couldn’t explain, came to me. I lifted a hand to carefully pluck it out of the chest to examine more closely.

It was a five foot long staff. The body of it was red, with black ends that tapered into points. As I turned the thing over, I felt something… much more immediate than I had thought. There was no question about it. This wasn’t something vague or uncertain. “It’s this one,” I said quietly, but firmly. “This is mine.”

Katarin didn’t ask if I was sure. Instead, he nodded and put his hand out. Somewhat reluctantly, I passed the weapon over and released it.

Taking the staff, the big man gave it a cursory once over. “Right, I don’t want you actually using this thing until I teach you how to do it safely, but this is a kinetic-burst staff.”

“Kinetic-burst staff?” I echoed, staring at the thing. I already wanted to be holding it again.

“Yeah, look here.” He showed me one of the ends of the staff, then directed my attention to a small depression in the handle where his fingers were resting. “Press this here to charge.” As he pressed it, the black ends of the staff began to glow blue.

“Release the button to stop charging.” Katarin continued. He moved his finger off the button, but the blue glow remained at both ends. “Then you’ve got three choices. First, you smack someone with it and it’ll add the concussive force that you’ve charged into it to your blow. Like this,” he turned to the nearest training dummy and gave a whack of the staff against it. The concussive force that the staff unleashed freaking blew the dummy across the room to crash into the mirror on the far side with a terrible noise that made me along with a few other students yelp.

“Better get used to that kind of thing,” Katarin advised before going on. “Second choice, just touch the thing you want to transfer the charge to. Has to be an inanimate object like a wall or floor or something. Like this.” Again, he charged the staff before touching one of the ends to the floor between us. “Keep holding the button while you do it so it doesn’t go off.”

As he held the point of the staff to the ground, I saw a faint blue bubble of energy appear there, about the size of a football. It turned almost entirely translucent and difficult to notice even when I knew what I was looking for after he pulled the staff away.

“Concussive mine,” he informed me. “You can set it off by pressing this other button here on the staff, or just wait for someone to touch it. Use it for traps or just to give yourself an edge in the middle of a fight by controlling where your opponent can safely step.”

Once I found my voice again, I asked, “And the… the third way of using it?”

“Propulsion,” he replied easily, smiling a bit at my resulting stare. “Once you get good enough with this thing, you can use the concussive force to propel yourself through the air. Make yourself jump higher or longer, move faster, escape when the enemy thinks they have you cornered, and anything else you can think of. Girl your size, an average charge ought to throw you a good fifteen, twenty feet when you do it right.”

He was chuckling at my expression while handing the staff back to me. “Of course, you might want to wait until we get through a few lessons before you try anything like that.”

“Uh huh…” I held the staff tight in both hands, staring at it before nodding to the man. “You know, if you don’t mind, I think I might go for a whole four lessons before I try that whole ‘using a controlled explosion as my own personal taxi’ thing.”

“Good girl,” he replied before gesturing for me to go while he raised his voice. “All right, next we’ve got Avalon. Come on up, let’s see what works for you.”

And then he just let me walk away with a weapon that could probably put a hole in the wall if I set even a tenth of my mind to the effort. For all his warnings and threats, the man still let me take this weapon, just like he’d let the other students walk away with the weapons they were now holding.

It was then, in that moment that it really struck me, even more than seeing the vision of my ancestor had. This wasn’t an ordinary school. Sure, it sounded fun and interesting and cool to see all this stuff. But these weapons were real. The danger was real, and they wanted to teach us to fight it.

The phrase that Katarin had made us repeat came to mind, and I truly, truly understood its significance for the first time as more than just words to repeat.

This… was not a game.

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