Seth

On The Edge 42-02

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“You know,” Seth’s voice announced, “this guy is really good at violence. I think I like this partnership thing.”

His expression changed then, as the man spoke for himself. “That was a compliment,” he drawled, “so I let her go ahead and say it.”

Larees was the first one who had spoken. She and the vampire had chosen to team up. As capable as Seth was normally, I couldn’t even imagine what he would be like with a full Seosten boost. To say nothing of Asenath and the werewolves.

Even with short notice, we definitely weren’t going in unprepared. I just hoped it would be enough to deal with what we found in there. I didn’t want to have to fight the hotel residents any more than we had to, and I had no doubt that Kushiel would throw as many of them in our path as she possibly could. It wasn’t like killing innocents mattered to her.

A group of us was walking down the street to approach the most recent entrance to the Auberge. It wasn’t everyone. The Auberge had rules about larger groups. Even if you were together, you couldn’t approach and enter with more than seven or eight people at a time. It was to avoid attention from the outside (and probably for other security reasons) and they were very strict about it. Which worked for us, since splitting up to search the hotel was what we wanted to do anyway.

I was going in right alongside Wyatt and Deveron, of course. Neither of them had agreed to be possessed. Asenath, on the other hand, had agreed to be possessed by Athena. I’d pointed out that that seemed like a good way to commit suicide given the whole vampires being hybrids thing, and Athena had told me that holding Excalibur actually allowed her to possess hybrids, so long as she held the blade against them for a few seconds first. Which… was there anything the sword couldn’t do? We also had Seth, possessed by Larees and Namythiet (with Clubber), Bobbi, and Twister. Each of them (including the tiger cub) were possessed by a different Seosten, who were all quietly waiting for if (or when) things went wrong. I just hoped all the possessors and possessees were taking a chance to get to know each other while they had the chance. Because when this went down, they really needed to be able to work together as much as possible.

Either way, it wasn’t long before we reached the back alley that Seth had pointed us to. At the end of it was a single red door, lit by a weak little lamp. There was no sign of anything special about it at all. Which made sense, given the fact that it was, well, a secret.

Deveron looked towards me, quietly asking, “You ready for this, kid?”

My eyes met his. Not that either of our eyes, or the rest of our faces, looked the way they should. He had made himself look like a very pale blonde guy with a hint of fat in his cheeks, while I had gone with the appearance of a nearly anorexic redhead.

Besides our appearance changes, we were both also using the spells Wyatt had provided to fool any shape-shifting detectors the hotel happened to be using. That was on top of the spells he had put on us that would allow the others out in the van, like Abigail, to watch what happened. Which had once again reminded me of just how important and useful my magic-inclined big brother was.

“I’m ready,” I replied simply. “We’re ready. Or at least as ready as we’re going to have a chance to be. I’m pretty sure Kushiel won’t pay attention if we call for a time out for a year or two so we can really get ready.”

“Yeah,” Asenath put in. “I’ve found that people like her are really inconsiderate when it comes to that.” Pausing, she added, “And when it comes to basically everything else, really.”

Her expression shifted slightly then, as Athena spoke through her. “Be ready for anything. We don’t know how long they’ve been here, or how many resources they brought in. Assume that everyone inside is a potential threat, either through coercion or possession. It’s okay to look around and be curious. Remember, we’re tourists, so it’s expected. It’s our first time here.”

“Well,” Twister put in, “most of your first times here. Some of us know how to enjoy ourselves now and then.” She and Seth exchanged high fives without either looking at the other.

We reached the door then, and Seth reached out to knock. One quick, two long, then three quick.

As soon as that was done, a slit that hadn’t been there before appeared in the door. It slid open to reveal a pair of eyes, which immediately gave me the creeps. The eyes shifted slowly to take in each of us in turn, scanning up-and-down. I didn’t know exactly what they were doing, but it tickled. These definitely weren’t ordinary eyes, which was to be expected.

Apparently the shape-shifting combined with Wyatt’s spell worked, because a moment later the slit closed and the door slid open. As a group, we exchanged glances before starting through. Seth with Larees and Asenath with Athena went first.

We emerged into an incredibly lavish and beautiful hotel lobby. Seriously, this place was gorgeous. If it had been a Bystander place, it would have cost like a thousand dollars a night for an ordinary room. It was that good. There were chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, fine wood paneling, luxurious chairs, a huge fountain in the middle of the lobby, and even statues. The place was amazing.

It was a good thing that we were supposed to look like tourists, because I spent a minute just standing there looking around with my mouth open. Now I felt even worse about there being a potential (Probable, Tabbris corrected) fight here, because I didn’t want to break anything.

My attention was drawn then to the approach of a smartly dressed, dark haired man. He wore a crisp suit, and he was one of those guys whose appearance made him look anywhere between thirty and fifty with no real way to be sure. Not that appearance meant anything with people who could live for centuries or longer since I had no idea what this guy was (aside from the fact that he did set off my Heretic-sense), but still.

I also sensed an awful lot of weapons hidden on him under that simple suit. He had several guns, knives, what felt like a very large sword, a couple grenades, and more. The man was a walking arsenal. Which almost made me tense up a bit reflexively, but he didn’t seem to be coming for a fight. Not yet, anyway.

“Good evening,” the man started politely. “My name is Deacon Carterfield, and I would like to welcome you all to the Auberge. It’s very nice to see you again, Mr. Dozeran. And you as well, ahh, Twister.”

Nodding politely to both of them, the man continued, “I’m told that your Wonderland organization is interested in creating an ongoing relationship with our establishment. A relationship which would have you picking out permanent residences and allowing your people to, ahh,  take turns?”

That was a lie that we hoped we would be able to explain to them later. We couldn’t exactly tell them the real reason why we were there, and with any luck, when we were done, we wouldn’t have ruined any relationship between the two places. Especially if it meant we cleared out their Seosten infestation. Explaining that we couldn’t tell them the truth beforehand because any of them could have been possessed or compromised in some way would probably go along way toward handling things.

But first we had to get through this.

Deveron extended a hand to the man. “That’s what we’re hoping,” he confirmed with an easy smile. “It’d be nice for everyone to have a little treat like the Auberge to look forward to if they behave, you know?”

Deacon bowed his head in acknowledgment of that while shaking of the other man’s hand. “I’m quite certain I do. Just as I am certain that your party will enjoy their stay here, and that we will come to a very equitable agreement.“

He took a moment to shake hands with a couple of the others, before turning to me. Which made it my turn. And more importantly, made it time for the first test.

I was wearing the choker of Anuk-Ite. It had been disguised to look like a different necklace, of course. But I was still wearing it. It was a quick and easy way of testing for possession, and we weren’t going to go in here without an advantage like that, relatively small as it might have been in the long run.

I shook the man’s hand, introducing myself as Gabrielle Sezmin.  As our hands touched, I watched they man, but there was no sign of possession. Which still didn’t mean we could exactly tell him everything that was going on, considering every other way he could have been compromised. But still, at least there wasn’t a Seosten inside him.  

Eventually, he led us up to the front counter to check in, promising that he would send our other group around when they arrived and that he or any of the hotel staff would be more than happy to answer any questions we might have in the future.

We checked in, got our room keys, and then a little goblin girl named Elky, who was dressed like a maid, showed us to our rooms on the fourth floor. She babbled on the whole time very adorably, telling us about the hotel and some of the amenities in it, as well as promising that she or one of her fellow staff would take care of anything we needed if we just rang the little silver bells that were in each room. She was incredibly enthusiastic about everything, and it was fun to listen to her. I also took the chance to surreptitiously touch her shoulder on the way up, confirming that she wasn’t possessed either.

The rooms themselves were so nice that I was almost sad that we weren’t actually planning on staying. Each was enormous, of course, built like a million dollar penthouse with full-sized kitchens, bedrooms so big you could play a half-court basketball game in them, and bathrooms with tubs that you could do laps in. The place was amazing, and it was easy to see why they were proud of it.

Once we were left alone (Asenath gave the goblin girl some kind of gold stone for a tip), we waited for Mateo and the members of his pack who had come in with him to join us. Briefly, Athena separated from Asenath within the privacy of the room that we were using for this discussion so that she could go over the next part of the plan. We would split into somewhat smaller groups and wander around the hotel, ostensibly just doing touristy things. There were plenty of other inhabitants doing the same, so we wouldn’t stand out. Once we knew what was going on, we would join up again and plan out how to assault wherever Kushiel and her people were holed up.

Tabbris and I were paired up with Asenath and Athena. The four (or two, depending on how you were counting) of us would check the pool area and fitness rooms on the third, fourth, and fifth floors (they had a lot of them). Considering the choker, we would have the easiest job of identifying the Seosten. Which, I was almost positive, was the reason Athena had paired herself with me. Because she wanted to be the first one there when I finally found one of her people. I was also just as positive that Deveron and Wyatt, who were also paired together, had only agreed to the separation because I was with Athena. If Deveron would trust anyone to keep me safe, it was her. Plus, Wyatt had those spells to let him know if I was in trouble. That combined with the fact that Abigail and the others outside would see everything that happened gave them plenty of reason to go with the plan.

And yet, I still had to promise about twenty different times that I wouldn’t run off on my own when things went down. Which, yeah, that tracked.

Separating into our small groups after making sure that those outside in the van could still see everything just fine, we started out. I walked alongside Asenath down the hall to the elevator, making sure a privacy spell was active before speaking.

“How many people do you think she’s brought in with her for this whole thing?”

Reaching the elevator, Asenath reached out to hit the button while Athena spoke through her. “I am not certain. Losing the laboratory base would have put quite a dent in both her resources and her reputation. But this mission is important enough that the Seraphim may not have cared. She was… she was likely given anything she asked for that could be spared.”

“But if she fails here, after all that…” I started slowly.

“She will be, as you say, boned?” The word sounded unfamiliar coming from Athena, even through Asenath’s voice. “Yes. The Seraphim will not be pleased.”

“Which is just another reason to make sure it happens,” I noted while stepping onto the just-arrived elevator with her. “As if we didn’t have enough already.”

Together, we started working our way through the various gyms and pool areas. And of course, it was yet another reminder that I actually would’ve liked to stay here. The pools were beautiful, and while a couple were the standard rectangle, there were others in various shapes, with islands and fountains spread through them. Some were clearly meant for kids to play in, while others were reserved for adults. Some were quite hot to the point of boiling for species who enjoyed that, while some had chunks of ice floating in them. And the gyms were just as eclectic, with so much equipment that I couldn’t even begin to guess the uses of. I saw one Alter in there that looked like a mass of tentacles attached to a furry ball. Each of his (or her) several dozen tentacles were latched onto a different circular hook attached to a cable, which itself was attached to various weights.

There were lots of people around, actually. And though I couldn’t really outright shake everyone’s hand, I did find excuses to bump into them or brush by, which let me check them for possession. One by one, as we continued through a couple floors worth, they came up clean. No Seosten. And judging by the reports we were getting from the others, no one else was having much luck either.

That, however, changed entirely in an instant. We were heading through an otherwise empty conference room that we’d looked through after clearing the spa on that floor, when I brushed past a bellboy carrying a couple suitcases. As my hand brushed his leg, the choker activated, and I glanced that way to see the outline of a woman. Not Kushiel, but definitely a Seosten.

Something in my gaze must have given it away, because the man’s hand abruptly caught my wrist so tight I felt the bone in it snap. His fist was flying at my face.

Then he was stopped as Asenath caught him by the elbow. Without a word, she spun, hauling him off the ground before hurling the man back into the conference room we’d just been leaving. His body collided with the wall, before the vampire super-sped that way. Her foot hit the back of his head hard enough to stun him, before she went down on top of him, using her body to keep him pinned. “Now!”

I was already there, putting my hand to the man’s arm while he was dazed. With a thought, I used my ‘instant-picture’ power to make the expulsion-rune appear. So much faster than using the field-engraver, especially as I’d practiced with it extensively.

It worked. The female Seosten (one I didn’t recognize at all), was forced out of his body. She stumbled, and Asenath was right there to grab her. Using one hand and a hell of a lot of strength, she hauled the Seosten off the floor before slamming her down in one of the conference room chairs. From her pocket, she produced a length of magically reinforced cable, securing our new prisoner to that chair so that she couldn’t go anywhere.

Then she looked to me, and it was clearly Athena speaking. “Call in the others, we have no time. They’re connected, so Kushiel and her people will already know that we have her.”

From her secured position, the now-exposed Seosten smirked. “Is that who I think it is? Auriel? It’s you, isn’t it? You just had to involve yourself in this. Why? Why do you want to destroy our people? Are you that much of a traitor?”

“I don’t know you,” Athena informed the woman. “So don’t think that you can judge me.”

“Don’t know me?” The Seosten woman echoed, head tilting. Her voice was quiet, a bare whisper that was somehow much more immediately frightening than a scream would have been. “You wanna bet?”

Then it happened. Without warning, the Seosten lunged up from the chair. Her bindings were gone. She was so fast that the first hint I had that anything was wrong was her foot hitting me in the stomach. The air was knocked from my lungs as I went flying backward, rolling into a heap. As my head snapped up, I saw Asenath take a hit that made her crash into the nearest table so hard that it collapsed under her.

Wait, that didn’t make sense. Asenath had Athena. There was no way that some random nobody Seosten should have been able to lay a finger on her. None.

Tabbris helped me orient myself, getting my hands down to push up. But before we could do more than get to a kneeling position, there was a rush of motion. Seth was there. The vampire blurred his way across the room, slamming into the Seosten woman. His knife was driven into her chest, and his other hand caught hold of her throat to snap the woman’s neck. Then he gave her a shove backward to fall against the nearby wall as the body collapsed.

“Now see,” Seth started while turning to where Senny was. “That’s what happens when you don’t just finish the job. You end up looking embarassi-”

Too late, I saw the shape behind him. Too late, I saw it rise up. Too late, my mouth opened to scream a warning.

Too late, Seth began to turn in mid-sentence, his arm rising with that knife. Too late.

He stopped short, arms falling to his sides, knife collapsing to the floor. Larees appeared nearby, her glowing form resolving into her full body, her face settling into a confused expression.

Seth fell. His body collapsed, as the figure standing behind him held the vampire’s heart in one hand, crushing it between blood-soaked fingers before straightening to his full, impressive height.

“Okay, that makes us even,” Ares, the Olympian whose power allowed him to shift into the forms (including the powers) of the past several dozen people he had possessed, announced while cracking his neck. His foot lashed out, colliding with Larees to send her flying into the nearest wall, her unconscious form sliding to the floor. “You killed one of me, I killed one of you.”

“But something tells me you’re gonna run out before I do.”

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On The Edge 42-01

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A short, yet also entirely-too-long time later, we were waiting in an alley next to the van that Namythiet had provided for Mateo’s pack. And that ‘we’ involved a few more people than I had expected.

Apparently when they said that Roxa’s pack was coming to help us check on the Seosten in this Alter hotel, that included Pace/Theia, Miranda, and Abigail. This was that new development that Shiori had mentioned. An extremely new development, which they only had time to give me a very quick summary of. Essentially it amounted to ‘some Eden’s Garden Heretics were psychotic assholes and now the other Heretics knew about Pace being a werewolf.’ Also, Roxa had killed their leader. So now they, along with Abigail, were on the run and had been taken in by Mateo and his people.

I would’ve said that line about it pouring when it rains, but it had been a fucking monsoon for a solid chunk of the school year by that point.

Technically, Pace/Theia and Miranda wouldn’t be coming inside with us any more than Roxa would. They were too identifiable as Heretics. But they would be waiting outside, ready to come in as back-up. Or cause a distraction, whichever was needed. They would be there, along with Abigail, though the latter was basically only there to play lookout and to drive the van that they would be waiting in. And also because she refused to stay behind. Which was why Koren had become the last member of that little van group the moment she heard what was going on. She would wait with her mother and the others who couldn’t go inside.

That was our group. Abigail, Koren, Miranda, Roxa, and Pace/Theia would wait in the van. Meanwhile, Deveron, Wyatt, and I would be going into the hotel (each of us in shapeshifted or magical disguise, of course) along with Roxa’s pack of Mateo, Fezzik, Lesedi, Corson, and Hasty; as well as the other group of Asenath, Seth, Namythiet, Twister, and this new girl they had whom I hadn’t actually met yet aside from a very brief introduction when we were quickly going over everything. She was basically a little kid who introduced herself as Bobbi. Which… I had questions. But there wasn’t time. Asenath was vouching for the kid to the point of saying we needed her help. And apparently she and Seth had some system set up to send her to safety if things got too bad. So my questions would just have to wait.

Waiting. That was the order of the day so far. We were still waiting for the Seosten who would be joining us. Athena and Sariel were giving the ones who agreed to go in (and whom they had cleared to do so) last minute instructions, then they would be here. Athena would also be going in with us, while Sariel stayed with Gaia, Avalon, and the others at the other end.

It was a large group that we were taking into that hotel. But that was good. We had no idea what we would be walking into, and I wanted to have all the help we could get. Just in case.

That, and having so many people around quietly talking helped distract me from thinking about everything that was going on back with Avalon and the others. They would be getting ready to go in the vault the front way. It was a plan that we’d been working on for a long time by that point, but it was supposed to happen in a few days, not today. And I was supposed to be there.

We were adapting, trying to cope with the news of Kushiel being so close to getting into that vault without us. If Jophiel and Elisabet hadn’t told us about it, if they hadn’t shown up to let us know, would we have just walked into that vault a few days from now and found the place empty? How would we have dealt with that? And could Earth possibly have maintained its standard orbit with the weight of Kushiel’s smug face weighing it down?

“Felicity.” Abigail’s soft voice came as she laid a hand on my shoulder. She was on one side of me, while Wyatt stood on the other with Koren nearby. The four of us were near a dumpster behind the van, watching the other groups milling around. Deveron was off talking quietly with Mateo. “Are you sure you want to go in there? They have plenty of help already.” She was trying, kind of desperately, to give me an out.

My head shook. “I need to.” Turning to look at the woman, I reached up to take her hand. “I can help them. I can help Wyatt and Deveron.” My free hand gestured back to the men themselves. “They won’t know who or what I am until it’s too late. I can make myself look like someone else and I don’t set off their Heretic alert. How can I possibly not go with them?” Biting my lip, I added, “Besides-”

“Avalon.” That was Koren, stating the word flatly. “She won’t stay out because Avalon is going in the other side.” From the sound of her voice, the other girl still felt bad that she couldn’t go in too. At least, not yet. She’d be ready with the others if things went wrong and we needed help.

“And Shiori,” I confirmed. “All of them. They’re going into that vault from the other end. I can’t just sit here and hope they’re okay, not when Kushiel and her people are right there. I have to help. If the bad guys are in that hotel, we have to find out and stop them from getting through to the vault before Avalon and Dries. I can help, so… so I need to help.”

Stepping around in front of me, Abigail put her hands on both side of my face. “Promise me, Felicity. Promise me that you won’t take unnecessary, stupid risks. If either of us are going to look your father in the eyes later, you promise me that you’ll keep yourself and Tabbris safe.”

Tabbris wasn’t here, not just yet. She was helping her mother and Athena give their people last minute help and advice. She’d come when they did, because I wasn’t going in there without my partner. We’d been through too much, had done too much, to leave her behind now.

“I promise,” I dutifully stated. “Trust me, trust us. We have to stop Kushiel, but we’re not going to be stupid about it. Besides, we’ll have Athena, Asenath, and plenty of other help.”

“I hope you’re counting me in that.” The words came from Seth, as I felt him approach right before he began to speak. The vampire stood there as I turned, thumbs hooked casually through his belt loops as he drawled, “I’d hate to think I wasn’t being helpful considering the several bathtubs worth of cash your headmistress just dropped into my bank accounts.”

Asenath, appearing behind him, remarked, “You know, you could just help because it’s the right thing to do without having to be bribed into it. The Seosten problem affects you too.”  

Seth gave her a wink. “And now it affects me even more, on a financial level. Besides, it’s not like they can’t afford it. And maybe I get a little enjoyment out of making Heretics pay for my help, considering how often they’ve tried to kill me.”

“That’s different Heret–” Asenath started before shaking it off. “You know what, never mind.” To me, she added, “Sorry, sometimes he and Twist are a little too mercenary for their own good.”

Twister, for her part, approached then while making a noise of indignation. “Hey, don’t drag me into this. I agreed to go in there out of the goodness of my heart. And also because the last time I was in the Auberge, their chefs refused to let me use the damn kitchen.”

I quickly took that as a quick jump off point to change the subject. “Speaking of which, thanks you guys. All of you. Not just for going in with us, but for finding out where this place was to begin with.” I looked to Seth. “It would’ve been a hell of a lot harder to track down without you.”

It was true. Seth had used his contacts as the Tiebreaker for Wonderland to find out where the entrance to the Auberge was, and to arrange entry. As far as the people in the hotel were concerned, we were all from Wonderland itself, on some kind of special retreat. Thanks to Seth, we would be able to walk right in the front door without causing a scene. Which would make it a lot easier to quietly look around to find out if Kushiel was really there and hopefully stop her.

Before Seth could respond, Namythiet flew in to land on his shoulder. “No problem, Flick!” the little pixie chirped. “We’ve got your back. Right, Clubber?” At her words, the emerald-furred sabertooth tiger cub (who had grown a bit since I’d last saw him, but not overly much) planted himself at Seth’s feet while giving a fierce growl of agreement.

Finally, the last member of their group made her way over. My eyes found the young girl, and I took her in once more. Like Twister, she had dark skin. Though I was pretty sure that was where the similarities ended. She was actually young, and very new to all this. From what Asenath had said, the girl was a Natural Heretic who had been playing superhero in her own neighborhood with her powers and knew nothing about the whole Alter/Heretic situation until they’d found her.

Hoping that Asenath was right about the girl being ready for this, I extended a hand that way. “Hey, uhh, Bobbi, right? Sorry, it was pretty chaotic when everyone was showing up, I hope that’s right.”

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh, that’s me. You’re one of those people who go to school with the crazy zealots.”

Coughing at that, I managed a tiny smile. “I prefer just going by Flick. But yeah, some of us are less… zealot than others. Hopefully we can change things. Which is part of what dealing with all this is about.”

“The vault,” she put in with a little nod. “They talked about the vault. I’m um, still not sure I totally understand all of it, but we wanna help. I wanna help. Miss Senny says if we pull this off, the Seosten’ll be a lot weaker and they won’t be able to take people over without permission.”

Abigail spoke up then before I could. “They’re right. It is important, but I still don’t think you should be going in there.” The woman looked pained about all of this, but about Bobbi in particular. “You’re a little girl, you shouldn’t be–”

“It’ll be okay,” Asenath interrupted just as Bobbi looked as though she was gearing up to argue. “If things get too hot, she’ll be teleported out. Straight to you guys. In fact, here.” The vampire girl passed Abigail a small, smooth stone. “You’ll be watching what’s going on. If you think things are too dangerous, press the center of the stone there and say ‘Duckling run’. That’ll teleport Bobbi right to you.”

“But don’t do it just because there’s a fight,” the girl in question quickly put in. “I can fight. I have powers. I can help. Don’t you dare pull me out just because there’s a little violence.” As she spoke, the girl lifted her chin challengingly, staring at Abigail. I had a feeling she was partly rebelling against the idea of being mothered by the woman.

My older sister clearly noticed, but her only response was a slight smile. “As much as I hate the idea that you’re in any fight at all, I’m not going to yank you away the second someone throws a punch. But you have to promise to be careful too. All of you.”

She looked to me then, waving that stone, “And I wish there was one of these for you, Felicity.”

Stepping that way, I gave the woman a tight hug. “I wish there was one for everyone, and that we could all leave the second things got violent. But we need all the help we can get. If we don’t stop Kushiel here, we’ll never get Liesje’s spell back. And without Liesje’s spell, nothing will change. The Seosten are too entrenched. We need something to hit them hard, something to make them change. We need this spell. Which means we have to take risks.”

Abigail’s voice was soft, and more than a little sad. “You shouldn’t have to.”

Looking at her, I really wanted to ask what had happened to send her to Roxa’s pack. The details were too fuzzy. There had been a fight, at least one Garden Heretic had died after attacking them because they found out that Pace was a werewolf, and now they were staying with Mateo and the others. Clearly some bad things had gone down.

“Where’s Seller?” I settled on. “I would’ve thought he’d be here by now.”

It was Theia, or possibly Pace, who answered as she/they approached. “Busy. Garden leaders sent him on some kind of errand to get him out of the way so those thugs could come smack around Miranda and Abigail to teach them to stop acting out and fall in line. Which, you know, didn’t go well for them.”

Right, considering the straight-forward coherency of the answer, that was definitely Pace. I looked that way just as Miranda joined them, her expression grim. “Yeah, so I guess I don’t get the whole party that’s supposed to come a couple days after the renaming ceremony after all.”

Wincing, I stepped that way to hug my friend. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll make up a party to celebrate your… what was it they settled on?”

“Stray,” she answered before giving a faint, wry smile. “I guess it fits even more now, huh?”

“I’m sorry you didn’t get your celebration,” I murmured, finally releasing the other girl from the hug. But I caught her hands to squeeze them. “I know it’s a big deal. You were going to the school for years, and that whole thing is– you had to be looking forward to it.”

“I was,” she agreed. “But I’m looking forward to not being a puppet slave even more. Free will is kind of important. Besides…” Biting her lip, she looked over her shoulder to where Roxa stood with the rest of her pack. “They don’t seem too bad. None of them have tried to beat me into a coma for questioning them in the past few hours, which kind of gives them a boost over Garden.”

It was a dark joke, and I could tell she still felt betrayed and hurt by the whole situation. But I couldn’t think of what to say to make it better. Worse, there wasn’t time to do what I wanted to do, which was go have a girls night out with my friend so we could eat ice cream and watch movies while she vented. There was, as usual, too much to do.

But after we were done, after all of this was done, we would be spending time together. I promised myself that.

I did, however, look over to where Theia and Pace were standing. “It sounds like you guys stopped some pretty bad things from happening. So thanks.”

Pace shook their head, her voice quiet. “We didn’t stop every bad thing from happening. An innocent man still died.”  

“Yeah,” Miranda agreed softly, “that’s another reason I don’t feel too bad about not being considered part of Eden’s Garden right now.”

They told me a bit more about it, and I winced. A simple Bystander, just a guy trying to run his store, and that psycho Heretic piece of shit had killed him. Anger rose up in me, and I understood why Abigail seemed a bit out of it.

Something else occurred to me, and I looked to Theia. “Are you sure you want to go in there if things go wrong? I mean, if there’s a fight, if you have to come in to play back-up, it probably means that we actually ran into your mother…”

“Mad-bad Mum won’t play nice,” the Seosten girl spoke through Pace then. “She’ll hurt. She’ll kill. Theia-I won’t let her do that. We won’t let her do that. Pace wishes to help. She wishes to be here, and she gets to vote too. It’s her legs, her arms, her heart. Theia-I can’t make her stay away. That would be wrong. That would be evil. We are learning about evil. Miss Abigail is helping us learn.

“Besides,” she added with a predatory smile, “Theia-I wish to hurt Bad Mum back. Stopping this. That will hurt her.”

“You’re right,” Deveron agreed, stepping over to join us. “Losing here will definitely hurt her.” He stopped by Abigail and Wyatt, clearly unsure if he should touch them or not. It hurt to watch just how much he wanted to hold them while clearly knowing that it would make them uncomfortable.

A portal opened nearby then, drawing everyone’s attention just as Athena stepped through. She had Tabbris at her side, and a small group of Seosten right behind her. As they came into view, all the talking that had been going on through the alley stopped. Everyone was focused on the newcomers. More than a few were openly staring at Athena, and I had a feeling they knew exactly who she was. Probably from stories passed down by their friends and relatives.

Tabbris hurried over to me, catching my hand and squeezing it just as Athena began to speak. “I see my reputation precedes me. And it’s most likely not a very bright one. I know that… in the past, your ancestors and I had our differences. We probably still do. I have a great many things to make up for on this world and beyond. Tonight is part of that. Tonight, we will work together to ensure my people can no longer enslave anyone on this planet. But we will only be able to do that by working together. Make no mistake, Kushiel and her allies are not going to fail quietly. They will fight, and they will kill, to get into that vault first. We must distract them long enough for those on the other end to make it instead. You all know how important this is?”

There was a collective nod and murmur of ascent, and she gave a very slight smile. “Good. My people are here. They will only possess those who agree to it. Once possessed, they will only do as much as you allow them. For the most part, they will sit quietly and boost your strength and speed when the time comes. If things go wrong, they will jump from you and fight on their own. We will all be there as back-up to add to your numbers. If you are ambushed, if things go wrong, we will be there for you.”

“Yeah,” Larees, who had stepped up by Athena, put in. “Just remember we’re all on the same side.”

“Quite,” Athena agreed. “We are on the same side. As I said, if you do not wish to have a Seosten partner for this, you do not have to. But those of you who do, come this way to be paired up. And please be quick, we have very little time.”

Squeezing Tab’s hand, I managed a slight smile at the girl. “At least I already have my own partner, huh?” Voice softening, I asked, “How’s everyone doing on the other end?”

She flinched a little. “They’re scared. Scared for you, for me, for everyone. Scared but… ready. They’ll make it. They’ve gotta make it.”

“You’re right,” I agreed simply, trying to keep my voice from shaking too much. “But if they’re going to, then we have to do our part to give them the chance. Right?”

Hurriedly nodding, Tabbris answered a little more firmly. “Right.”

“Then hop in,” I replied.

“And let’s go give Kushiel something to think about.”

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Interlude 38A – Asenath, Bobbi, and Company

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It was a rather eclectic group that sat in the buffet restaurant at the table furthest from both the entrance and the food, away from where anyone else was. Two vampires, one pixie, a human girl in her early teens, and a green-furred sabertooth tiger cub. They were, to put it mildly, a group that would have stood out to anyone who was capable of actually seeing through the Bystander Effect.

Of course, to those who could not, the ordinary humans in this place, they still looked perhaps a bit odd. To those humans, sitting at the table were a white adult male, a half-Asian female in her late teens, a half-black girl in her early teens, and a cat.

Namythiet the pixie, meanwhile, was basically invisible to humans. They would see her at first, or when she deliberately drew attention to herself, and then instantly forget her before they could actually react to it.

Halfway through her second plate, Bobbi Camren pointed to the green-furred animal with her fork. “I still can’t believe they let us get away with bringing Clubber in.”

Smirking a bit at that, Seth reached out to brush the cloth animal-vest that Clubber wore. The vest designated him as a handicap assistant animal. “No one wants to be the one to tell a handicapped person they can’t have their assistance or comfort animal. Long as we keep him away from the serving tables over there, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Clubber, for his part, looked down at the licked-clean plate in front of him before turning a yearning gaze toward the tables in question while making a soft whimpering sound.

“Don’t worry, partner!” Namythiet gave her animal friend a quick thumbs up while launching into the air on fast-beating wings. “I got it!” She flew off quickly to retrieve more food for the hungry feline.

From where she was sitting, Asenath raised her hand as if to say something about that before simply shaking her head and lowering the hand. “Never mind,” she murmured.

Seth chuckled, spearing a piece of very rare, bloody steak with his fork. “Might as well let them fill up as much as they want. This next one’s going to be rough. Probably the hardest one out of the bunch.”

“That’s why we saved it for last,” Asenath pointed out. “We’ve got everything else Gaia asked for. This is the only piece left. Well, that and the fact that we had to wait for a time when it was even reachable at all.”

Bobbi blinked back and forth between them. “You guys said you already got a piece of a dragon, right? Weren’t they supposed to be like the most powerful things ever? You made me write that report on them a few days ago.”

“Yeah,”  Seth confirmed, “and you totally earned that B plus. But while we’re on the subject, don’t forget that math homework when we’re done with this.”

The vampires and pixie had recruited Bobbi to help them with their mission. They had explained everything they were doing, at least as much of it as they understood, and the girl had wanted to help. Not to mention the fact that they could explain a lot more about what the hell was going on in this world than she had managed to put together in her time working as a superhero with her inherited powers. Thanks to them, she knew about the world of Heretics and Alters, and about the Seosten. And she wanted to help, really help.

So they had taken a page from the Crossroads book and convinced her father that she was being recruited by a private school, with a full scholarship and everything.

To Bobbi’s surprise, it had turned out that her new friends actually took the school thing seriously. They made her study of human and Alter/Heretic subjects, quizzing her at times, and even giving her homework to do. If she didn’t get the work done, she didn’t get to help. They taught her history, math, magic, English, even a bit of foreign languages. They took her education very seriously between them. Just like they took her training seriously. They kept teaching her more ways to use her power, as well as how to protect herself with and without it. They put her through an educational and physical boot camp of sorts.

Asenath and Seth seemed to argue a fair bit. Okay, more than a fair bit. But on Bobbi’s education and training, they were pretty much always in complete agreement: she needed more of it.

“Math, got it,” the girl confirmed before asking, “but what about this really hard thing. You really mean it’s worse than the dragon piece? I might’ve gotten a B-plus, but I distinctly remember dragons being basically the most powerful things ever.”

“You’re not wrong,” Seth agreed, leaning back a bit in his seat before adding, “Bits of dragon are probably more rare, but the thing we’re going after is still harder to get to. It’s… complicated. Let’s just say, we got a bit lucky with the dragon piece. This one’s more specific. That could have been any bit of dragon. But the thing we’re after now has to be this one. Well… there’s another, but it’s even more impossible to get to. This is the only one that’s actually vaguely reachable. Which means we don’t get to pick and choose a piece that’s less guarded. This one’s going to be a pain in the ass to get to, but we don’t have a choice. It’s the one we need.”

“Which is why you need to eat up,” Asenath finished for him, using her fork to point at the girl. “And remember the rules. You have the necklace?”

Nodding promptly, Bobbi reached into her pocket to take out the necklace that Namythiet had made for her. It was part of her agreement with them. If, at any point while they were on one of these missions, one of them felt that things were too much for the girl, they would give her the codeword. At that point, Bobbi was to touch the necklace and speak the word that would activate the spell on it. That spell would teleport her to safety.

They had sworn to the girl that if they told her to use it and she didn’t, assuming they all survived they would take her home immediately and leave her there. They only agreed to let her come with them and help on the conditions that she continue her schooling under them, and that she listen to all of their orders. And part of that was to retreat when they told her to.

Besides, Bobbi was pretty sure they had ways of activating the necklace against her wishes anyway, should she try to disobey and stick around. It just felt like something they’d do, given their obsession with keeping her as safe as possible while still letting her help.

By that point, Namythiet was on her way back to the table, carrying a plate laden with various meats. A few people glanced that way before turning back to what they were doing.

“Err,” Bobbi leaned forward a bit, lowering her voice reflexively. “What do people see when they look at that? Do they just, like, completely forget the plate, or think that they saw a normal person carrying it?”

“Eh,” Seth drawled while glancing that way, “you know, I’m not sure, exactly. Probably depends on the person, but I’d say… they mostly forget it. Yeah, they probably forget it.”

Namythiet had reached the table by then, carefully setting the plate down in front of Clubber, who immediately started to happily chow down on the selection of meat.

“See, buddy?” the pixie chimed while patting her furry friend on the head, “I’ve got your back.” She took a small piece for herself then before hovering over to sit in the middle of the table at the dish that she was using. “Hey, are we ready to plan out this job or what?”

Asenath gave a faint nod at that, taking a bite of her salad. “When Twister gets back from making sure there’s no last-minute instructions or advice from Sinclaire.”  

“Wait, when do I get to meet this Gaia person?” Bobbi put in quickly. “She sounds interesting. You said she’s like… the principal of the whole school full of these zealot guys, right? But she’s nice? How many other ‘nice’ zealots are there?”

“It’s complicated,” Asenath informed her. “But yeah, there’s some nice ones. And some really not nice ones. Mostly the latter at the moment, unfortunately. As for Gaia, you’ll meet her… eventually. Hopefully as soon as she can pull herself away from the school once we get this last piece.”

Seth grunted an agreement. “From the way she was talking, she’ll need everything pretty soon. Sounds like this spell she’s cooking up is gonna take some time to work.”

“Maybe she’ll actually tell us what she needs all this stuff for,” Namythiet huffed, clearly annoyed that she hadn’t been able to figure it out from the ingredients that they had been gathering. “Secrets are annoying, you know.”

By that point, Bobbi had been around the group long enough to know what that meant. “You mean they’re annoying if you don’t know what they are.”

“That’s exactly what she means.” The voice came from Twister, the final member of their group, as she approached the table. Like Bobbi, her skin was dark. She also looked younger than the other girl, though that much was… well, complicated, to say the least.

Sliding onto a seat at the table, Twister grabbed roll from Seth’s plate, munching as she continued, “Pixies like knowing secrets. Part of being sneaky little shits.” The last was said with a wink in the tiny, winged-girl’s direction.

Huffing at that, Namythiet folded her arms over her chest. “Hey, we’re so small, we have to take advantages where we can get ‘em. Part of that is not being noticed when people are talking about private things.”

For a moment then, Bobbi just sat in her chair and marveled at everything that had happened in such a short time. For a year, she had done everything she could to protect her small neighborhood from the worst of the monsters she found hunting within it. She’d had no idea about the wider world beyond, no way of understanding just what she was, why she’d gained her powers from the dead mobster, or why the non-humans who realized that the girl could see what they were happened to be so afraid.

She didn’t know anything. Then she’d met Twister and Asenath, and the others by extension. Through them, she had learned so much more. And now she was helping them do… well, she didn’t know what. And neither did they. But it was something important, that much was clear. She was helping them, learning from them. It was cool, but it was also dangerous.

And she wouldn’t have traded it for anything. She liked her new little family. She wanted to protect them, help them, learn from them. She wanted to be a part of them, even when they teased her.

She missed her father, and her imprisoned mother. But Bobbi truly felt as though she belonged here, with these people. Despite not knowing the group for very long, she felt close to them. Their problems were her problems, and she was going to help any way that she could.

“Yooooo.” That was Twister, waving a hand in front of Bobbi’s face. “Earth to space cadet. You okay in there?”

Flushing a little at the realization that she had been zoning out again, Bobbi quickly nodded. “Sure, yeah, I’m here. What’d you find out from the Gaia lady?”

So Twister told them, and the group finished eating as they planned out how they were going to grab what would apparently be the most difficult item on Gaia Sinclaire’s list of magical ingredients.

And once she heard what the thing they were going after actually was, Bobbi didn’t question why it would be so hard to acquire anymore.

In fact, she wondered if they would even be able to pull it off.

******

The horrific, deafening sound of a machine gun filled the air like the roar of a beast clawing its way up out of hell itself. Hundreds of bullets ricocheted off of the glowing, blue-white shield that Bobbi held in front of herself in those few seconds. Then the girl focused on the other aspect of her power: her speed.

Instantly, everything went almost completely still. She could see even more bullets almost completely frozen in the air. And beyond them, she saw the massive, eight-foot tall gray-furred figure holding the machine gun in one hand (he had a giant axe in his other hand). He was frozen in mid-laugh, head thrown back as he tried to mow Bobbi and the others down.

The others. Twister was a bear, one frying-pan sized paw currently busy slamming a green-skinned amphibian figure to the ground while his own broken gun lay uselessly nearby.

Senny had a knife in each hand, arms extended to stick the blades into the throats of two different figures. A short distance from her, Seth stood, surrounded by half a dozen bodies of his own.

They were in the front lobby of an office building in downtown Los Angeles. The place looked like any other glass obelisk, just like the buildings around it. But most office buildings didn’t have quite this level of security.

The floor was littered with the bodies of the men who were trying to stop them from doing what they needed to do. Some of them were unconscious, while others were dead.

The first time Bobbi had seen her new friends actually kill people, even if they had been bad guys, it had sent her into a spiraling nightmare of a flashback. She had been back in that store again, back in the blood of the man whose powers she had gained. It had taken quite awhile for them to talk her around afterward, as they had explained that some people just couldn’t be left alive. There was no prison to send them to, and they would readily kill many more innocent people if left alive.

But Bobbi couldn’t kill them. She wouldn’t go that far. She’d even made the others promise not to kill anyone she incapacitated, unless they absolutely had to. Maybe it was stupid. But… she didn’t want to be responsible for it. She didn’t want to be responsible for people dying. Or at least, not more responsible than she already was for helping.

It just felt uncomfortable. And wrong. She helped, she participated, but she wouldn’t kill. She didn’t force the others to follow her own moral code or anything, aside from not wanting them to kill the people she personally stopped. That felt like… like the best compromise she could manage. She was slowly starting to understand the world beyond her little neighborhood and just how dangerous it really was. And maybe she was just being a stupid little kid about it.

But she wouldn’t kill. She just… wouldn’t.

Her own form was a blinding blur of motion to the outside world then, as she sprinted around the incoming bullets, glowing sword appearing in her hand just in time to cut the massive machine gun in half. In the same motion, Bobbi threw herself up and around into a kick. Someone her size kicking someone as enormous as her opponent would normally, of course, do basically nothing. But as fast as she was moving, the impact knocked the man to the ground with a cry, even as his gun fell into two pieces around him.

Landing in a crouch after that full-bodied hypersonic kick, Bobbi’s brief burst of superspeed ran out just in time for a second big guy with an enormous gun of his own to sight in on her.

And then his weapon fell apart into about a dozen pieces, right as the man was about to pull the trigger. As the machine gun collapsed, Namythiet appeared from where she had been inside the weapon, taking it apart from there. “Avast!” the pixie declared while swiping her sword back and forth in the air, “Not so big without your pea-shooter, are y–eeep!”

The big guy took a swipe at her, which the pixie easily dodged by flying straight up before driving her pin-like sword into his eye. As he roared and jerked back, Bobbi was there. She had conjured a glowing hammer, which she drove hard into his stomach. As he doubled over a bit, her hands grabbed his shoulders, and she sent a burst of electricity into him that put the man on the ground.

The fighting continued like that. For quite some time, longer than Bobbi had ever actually fought at one time, the group worked their way through the main lobby of the office building they had just broken into, moving into the stairwell and continuing up. They had to get to the top floor, and they had to do so before the reinforcements could be called in.

Even without the reinforcements, it was exhausting. She kept having to absorb more and more power from the nearby light fixtures and computers. And even then, by the time they reached the top floor, Bobbi was too tired to keep fighting. Which Asenath noticed and made her stay behind with Namythiet and Clubber to watch the stairwell while she, Twister, and Seth finished up.

So Bobbi sat there, panting and watching the stairs while taking a drink from the water bottle that Clubber had helpfully held up in his little mouth for her. She was panting, feeling utterly wiped from all the fighting. Using her power that much, even with plenty of energy to drain, still took a lot out of her. She needed to just sit and rest.

“No time to nap,” Seth called from the doorway at the end of the hall. “C’mon kid, we need your help to open this thing.”

With a grunt, Bobbi pushed herself up, bracing herself against the wall while Namythiet flew up to land on her shoulder. The poor pixie was exhausted as well. As was Clubber, who trudged alongside Bobbi as the girl tiredly made her way down the hall. She passed more than a dozen other bodies, trying not to think about what had happened to them, before reaching the actual doorway where Seth was waiting.

Looking past him, she saw what looked like a conference room of some kind. There were floor to ceiling windows all along three of the four walls, including the far corner from the doorway. Most of the room itself was taken up by a long table, with a three foot long, two foot high metal safe right in the middle of that table. There were yet another seven bodies laying around that room, their blood and… other things decorating the windows, floor, and table itself.

“You okay, Lite Brite?” Despite his clear impatience, Seth put a hand on the top of the glowing helmet that covered her head, making her look up at him. “Got enough oomph for one more thing?”

“I can do it,” Bobbi insisted, chin up as she stared at the safe. “That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Asenath confirmed. “Sorry, we’d give you more time but… well, we’re out of it. We need to grab this thing and get the hell out of here yesterday.”

“I’m okay.” Bobbi really wasn’t sure that she was, but she had to try. Getting the safe open was the most important thing. It was apparently warded against all kinds of magic. But not against her.

Nearby, Asenath turned, putting her fist through the wall. Tearing out some of the debris, she caught hold of some wires and yanked them free as well, snapping the wires in the process. Live electrical wires.

“All yours, Bobs,” she offered, “drink up.”

Holding both hands out that way, Bobbi focused on draining all the power she could through those wires. Electricity jumped visibly from the wires to the girl’s hands. She was draining everything she could, not just from the room, but from the entire building. The place was on its own separate power grid, and she was taking everything. She could feel the electricity filling her up, giving her a quick rush of euphoria.

Hard. This was going to be hard. It wouldn’t have been easy at the best of times, but now? Now she was already tired from everything else. It was going to be a nightmare.

And yet, she would do it. She would make this work, because it was important. Because her new friends had asked her to. She would do it.

The others were all waiting, standing guard while Bobbi gathered all the power that she could through those exposed wires. She was focusing almost solely on that safe, tuning out everything else as much as possible. Only two things existed, herself and the safe. And what was inside. More power. She needed more. As much as possible. Had to hold onto it, keep holding it… keep holding it…

When she could hold it no longer, Bobbi’s right hand snapped forward, away from the exposed wires. In the next instant, a powerful, blinding jolt of lightning-like electricity shot out of that hand to crash into the safe. Or rather, near the safe. The electricity actually stopped a few inches out, hitting a glowing red shield that popped up around it.

It was a magical forcefield, along with other protective spells. Namythiet and Twister had taught Bobbi about how she could use a powerful burst of electricity to overwhelm spells like that. Some spells could be overwhelmed by the judicial use of a taser. But in cases like this, that wasn’t normally viable, because it would take an entire building’s worth of power to knock out the spell that was protecting the safe.

So… it was a good thing she had an entire building to draw from, then.

The lights went out almost immediately, leaving the room lit only by what came in through the windows. Everything in the building went dead one by one, as Bobbi channeled the power through herself and straight into the continuous lightning bolt (was it really a bolt when it kept going on for a long time?) into the forcefield surrounding that safe.

Seth had a knife. He’d shown her to her. The blade could cut through spells, actually absorbing the energy from any spell that it touched in order to completely disable it. Unfortunately, the people who ran this building were prepared for that kind of thing. They had layered their protection spells in such a way that disabling one with that knife, or anything that worked in a similar way would result in the safe teleporting away. Simply cutting through the spell would send the safe away.

But this? Hitting the protective forcefield with enough electricity to completely overwhelm it, that was different. Different because the forcefield and the spell that would teleport the safe away both drew from the same well of power. If Seth were to use his knife to disable the forcefield, it would kill the shield immediately, at which point the teleportation spell would send the safe away.

But in this case, the forcefield was being hit by a building-worth of electricity. To keep itself powered, it would keep draining that well of power. Which meant that when it finally collapsed, it would be because there was no more power for it to draw from. Which, in turn, would mean that there was no power for the teleportation spell to do its job.

Of course, there were two back-ups for that. The first was that the teleportation spell was supposed to jump to powering itself with the building’s electricity if its normal energy well wasn’t there. But, well, that would be impossible because Bobbi was already using it.

If it failed to power itself through either of those means, the teleportation spell had a third condition, which was to drain ambient energy from the living beings who were trying to get at the safe and use that to teleport the safe away. But that third option was the last one specifically because it was the slowest. Only by a few seconds, but still. There would be a brief window where the shield was down, yet the teleportation spell had no power. And in that window, Seth would then use the knife to disable it.

Essentially, they had to overwhelm the forcefield in one specific way that made it drain the well of power before it was destroyed, leaving the teleportation spell no way to power itself for at least a few seconds, during which Seth could destroy it and leave the safe vulnerable.

Even this would have been impossible most of the time. The safe’s normal location was far more protected than this meeting room. But it had been temporarily brought here, only for a short window. And the time between when the safe had been placed there and when the main meeting that had been intended to take place in this room would take place was even shorter.

And they had absolutely no intention of being in this room when that meeting was supposed to happen. Being around any of the people involved in it would have been a bad idea. Being around all of them… suicide. They had this very, very brief opening where the safe was in position and before the big players had arrived for the meeting. This one chance. That was it.

It was an opportunity that couldn’t be wasted, and Bobbi didn’t intend to. She channeled electricity through that shield until the thing shattered. At almost the same time, she felt her own exhaustion catch up with her, and collapsed.

The world went dark, while the sound of Seth rushing past her to do his part filled her ears.

Sleep… she wanted to sleep… preferably for a month. But maybe just for a few seconds… or minutes… or…

Bobbi’s eyes opened some time later. She was laying in grass in the middle of a field somewhere. With a gasp, she sat up and looked around wildly.

The others. They were all there. All… eating cheeseburgers, actually. Greasy, yummy cheeseburgers that made her mouth water. After everything she had just done, fuel was needed. Lots of it.

Seth obligingly offered a paper sack to her, raising an eyebrow. “Dinner? You earned it.”

Quickly, Bobbi grabbed the sack and began to devour the first burger she could unwrap. It was only once she was halfway through it that she remembered to ask (through her full mouth) “Did we get it?”

“Did we get it, she asks?” Twister scoffed at that. “As if we’d leave a job unfinished. Pshaw. I am insulted.”

Senny shook her head and nudged the Pooka. “We got it.” She nodded toward a wooden box that sat between them. “Namythiet just finished taking all the tracking spells off it before we came here. We’re safe, for now.”

“Not that anyone’s safe near something like that,” Seth observed flatly, his eyes staring at the box.

“Can I see it?” Bobbi asked, curious about the thing they had worked so hard to get hold of.

Obligingly, Asenath picked up the box. “Don’t touch,” she reminded the girl before opening the lid.

For a moment, the girl just stared at the short, six inch length of rope within. “It looks so small…”

With a chuckle, Seth nodded. “Yeah, well, that’s because the Heretics have most of it. I mean, they think they have the whole thing. But they don’t know about this piece right here. If they knew this bit was out and about, they’d move heaven and Earth to get to it.”

“Of course they would,” Asenath agreed while showing her fangs in a smile.

“If they knew we had a piece of the rope from the Hangman that they’re all connected to, they would lose their fucking minds.”

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Interlude 30 – Asenath, Seth, Namythiet, and Twister

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“Now ain’t this just great? The daring duo, back together again for a reunion tour.”

On the tail of his pronouncement, Seth turned on his heels to walk backward down the damp sidewalk, long brown coat flapping a bit in the breeze as he passed in and out of the illumination cast by the flickering streetlights. Smirking, he added, “With a few additions, of course.”

It was, for certain, an eclectic group. Beyond Seth, they consisted of Asenath, the daughter of his sire and the girl he considered a sister; Namythiet, his tiny yet fierce apprentice who happened to be a pixie; her animal guardian Clubber the green sabertooth tiger cub; and Asenath’s frequent partner, the mercenary Pooka named Twister. Senny and Twister walked alongside one another, while Namythiet rode on the back of her emerald-furred companion.

In response to Seth’s words, Asenath simply gave the old vampire a brief eye roll. “First, we were never a duo. Ever. You’d have to actually care about someone besides yourself before we could be an actual duo.”

Maybe it was unfair. But the vampire girl had seen Seth walk away from people who needed help too often for her to forgive him just because he tended to be charismatic about it. If something didn’t directly affect him, he had no problem with just letting bad things happen.

Still walking backwards, Seth put a hand over his heart while adopting a look of mock pain. “Ouch. You wound me, little sister. Come on. We’re here, aren’t we? All fighting the good fight.”

“Yeah,” she replied, “because Gaia Sinclaire paid you an obscene amount of money to be here.”

The man huffed indignantly at that before his head shook as he turned back the other way. “Now, I take offense at that. As if I would’ve spent this much time on this hunk of rock and still needed cash. The lovely headmistress paid me in a couple of unique, rare artifacts, not money.”

Though it had been raining all day long in the city of Baltimore where they were walking, the storm had, for the moment at least, let up somewhat. Still, the street was relatively empty, save for the occasional passerby or two hurrying to get home before the rain started once more.

“I’m the one she paid in cash,” Twister put in, raising a hand as they passed one of those small  groups rushing for cover. “I like cash. It’s fun to roll around in. Especially if you’re naked.”

Sighing as the three random humans they had just passed did a quick double-take and immediately started whispering, Asenath lowered her voice. “Twist, seriously? Please don’t talk about rolling around naked when we’re near humans. You still look like you’re twelve at best.”

“Oh, right, sorry.” Turning that way then, Twister called to the group in the distance. “It’s okay, I’m actually almost a hundred and eight! Or three, depending on which way you count!”

Turning back, she found Senny stopped, arms outstretched in an exasperated shrug. “Why?” the vampire demanded. 

“Oh, chill,” the Pooka replied with an incorrigible grin. “Who are they gonna tell? Besides, we’ll be in and out of here before they even get home. How much further is this place, anyway?”

“We’re here!” Namythiet piped up excitedly then, flying up from her mount to hover in the air between them with a pocket notebook as tall as she was clutched in both hands. “I mean, according to Miss Gaia’s messages, it’s right over there.” She used the notebook to point toward an old, long-since closed down and boarded up video rental store across the street from them.

“Right.” Glad for the distraction, Senny stared at the building appraisingly for a moment. “We get inside, get the thing for Gaia, and get out again. Then we move on to the next one on the list.”  

The list was an extensive one. The Crossroads Headmistress was paying incredibly well for them to acquire a number of incredibly rare materials, some one-of-a-kind. Neither Senny nor any of the others knew exactly why the woman wanted them, only that she was working with someone else they hadn’t actually met on some kind of secret project that required the components. Gaia had sought them out, Twister and Asenath through Gabriel Prosser and the other two through Wonderland (the woman showing up there had caused a bit of a scene, though the fact that she had effortlessly killed the Nocen who were attacking the place at the time had helped).

“So,” Seth started while folding his arms against his chest, “same plan we talked about?”

Asenath nodded. “Go. We’ll wait for you and Namythiet to do your thing. And Seth?” She paused before sighing. “Just be careful. Gaia wouldn’t send all of us if it wasn’t dangerous.”  

“Aww.” The man gave her a sly grin at that. “See, I knew you cared about me after all.”

Opening her mouth to retort, Asenath paused before giving her head a shake. “Just go.”

Regardless of how often they disagreed, Seth had been like a brother or an uncle to her for basically the girl’s entire extensive life. And he was one of the only connections she had left to her father. She didn’t want him to die. She just wanted him to not be such an asshole so often.

“Don’t worry, Miss Senny!” Namythiet put in cheerfully as she buzzed over in front of her face. The pixie had dropped her big notebook in the pouch that Clubber was wearing like a backpack. Now, she held up what looked like an old-school classic Gameboy that had been heavily modified, with several new seemingly random components tacked onto it, including a pair of antennas sticking out of the top left and right corners, and what looked like a string of Christmas lights leading down to something inside of Clubber’s pack that kept blinking on and off. “We’ll do our part lickity-split, and then we can all go in and kick those monsters’ butts!”

With that declaration, Namythiet and Clubber set off, with Seth following behind after giving Asenath a brief, casual salute. As they left, Twister looked to her friend. “Man, you are upset.”

“Of course, I’m upset,” the vampire girl replied while looking away. “Flick and the others are on the other side of the universe, Shiori’s losing her mind, and I can’t do anything about it. If Felicity dies out there, do you have any idea what it’ll do to Shiori? What it’ll do to…” She swallowed.

“What it’ll do to you,” Twister finished for her. “I know. She’s your friend, Senny. She’s a Heretic who actually listened to you. I mean, before we remembered that there used to be a whole revolution full of ‘em. It’s a big deal. I–shit, I’m sorry we’re still stuck here. But at least we’re doing something, right? I mean, if it’s for Sinclaire, it’s gotta be important. Even if she won’t tell us what it is.” Pausing then, she looked to Asenath pointedly. “She really didn’t tell you, huh?”

“Nope.” Senny shook her head, leaning against the nearby streetlight as she gave a small sigh. “All I know is that the things she wants us to get are important, and she can’t do it herself because of the eyes on her. Plus, if they figured out what she was going after, things might get bad. That’s why she’s got some things on the list she doesn’t actually need. Just to throw off anyone who finds out what we’re collecting and tries to figure out how it all goes together.”

“Wait.” Squinting at her then, Twister quickly demanded, “So some of this shit that we’re going to be busting our asses to get is completely useless? And we don’t even know which ones?”

“Not useless,” Asenath corrected. “Just not used for the same thing. Everything she wants us to get is useful, it’s just that they don’t all go together.” She eyed the Pooka. “Wanna back out?”

Twister elbowed her. “Of course not. I’m with you, fam, you know that. Besides…” She sighed. “I’m kinda antsy too, I guess. Might as well do something useful if we can’t get to Flick.”

With that said, she looked over to Asenath curiously. “How’s Abe doing? You check in on him?”

“Of course,” Senny replied with a cough. “I promised Flick I’d keep an eye on her dad. Just because he’s with Prosser doesn’t change that. And you know Lincoln is just his first name.”

“Sure,” the dusky-skinned girl replied, grinning at her companion. “But I like calling him Abe. It’s like our thing, you know? Especially since I can actually talk to him now, instead of barking or meowing or making whatever other animal noise happened to be appropriate at the time.”

“Or even inappropriate,” Senny pointed out with a wry look then. “He told me about the time you actually barked at him as a cat and he thought he was going crazy or something.”

Snickering a bit at the reminder, Twister gave her a thumbs up. “That was awesome. You should’ve seen his face when this sweet little stray kitty comes up and then barks at him like a Doberman. Totally worth it. Hell, I was kinda thinking about seeing how he felt about a squirrel that could roar like a lion, or a bird that mooed before he went and broke the BS effect.”

Before Asenath could respond to that, the phone in her pocket buzzed. She tugged it out and glanced that way before nodding. “Seth says the spell barrier’s down. Time to do our part.”  

“Great.” With a broad smile, Twister cracked her knuckles, then popped her neck before starting to stride that way. “I’ve been waiting to break some shit. Let’s go have some fun.”

Crossing the street, she was already starting to grow… a lot. By the time the Pooka reached the other side, she didn’t look like a little girl at all. No, she was something much, much less subtle.

Trumpeting triumphantly, the twelve-foot tall, thirteen thousand pound African elephant charged across the parking lot, slamming into and through the front entrance of the boarded up store. With an explosion of debris and the protesting shriek of shattering wood, brick, and metal, the doors (and a good portion of the entire wall) were torn through like they weren’t even there.

“Well,” Asenath muttered to herself, “if that didn’t manage to draw their attention, nothing will.”

With that, she took a breath before launching herself that way. Her figure was an indistinct blur as she fairly flew through the opening that Twister had made and into the ‘store’ proper.  

For a place that had looked as rundown from the outside as it had, the inside of the place was much better kept. And it didn’t look at all like a store, for that matter. There were heavy duty safes all along most of the walls, protected by a mixture of advanced technology and spells.

According to Gaia, this was a place where people of very… unsavory reputations kept some of their more important artifacts or valuables. They were protected by a third party, who specialized in being discreet and in keeping their client’s belongings both private and safe from thieves.

Well, they were about to get a bit of a ding against their reputation. As she sprinted into the room, Senny saw about a dozen men in the midst of jerking up from the table in the middle of the room where they had been playing some kind of card game. The majority were at least mostly humanoid-looking at first glance, though the one at the end looked like an anthropomorphic rhino in a rhinestone-covered sweatsuit and gold chains. Several of the others, meanwhile, had different colored skin, too many or too few eyes, or other small reminders that they weren’t actually human. And all of them were packing weapons of one kind or another.  

Two of the men in particular, both of them with enhanced speed and reflexes that almost rivaled Asenath’s, already had some kind of advanced, deadly-looking rifles raised and pointed at the elephant, their fingers starting to pull the triggers as they sighted in on the obvious threat.    

Shooting across the room in another blur of motion, Senny caught one of the rifles by the barrel, shoving it aside before lashing out with a kick at the table itself. The gun in her hand went off with a blinding flash, sending a red laser through one of the other rising men and the nearby wall. Meanwhile, the table itself was flung up and back to slam into the other gunman, knocking him aside just as he pulled the trigger so that his shot went up through the ceiling.

From the corner of her eye, Senny saw one of the other men disappear into the floor, clearly running to call for help. Another turned into a gaseous cloud, while a third grew a foot and a half in an instant, sprouting four new hairy arms and disgusting mandibles. Great. A were-spider. Those were always fun to deal with.

Twister had grabbed one of the men in her trunk, literally throwing him out of the building and across the street with a panicked scream before he hit the wall of the distant apartment building.

The rhino-man batted the overturned table out of his way before lunging toward the big target that Twister represented. Unfortunately for him, that target abruptly wasn’t so big. Twister instantly shifted from elephant down to a tiny chipmunk, and rhino-man stumbled in confusion.

With a cocky chittering sound, the little chipmunk raced up the man’s leg, over his back, and perched right on top of his head.

Then she turned into an elephant again, her mass filling the room and knocking several aside just as they had started to move through that space, and squished the rhino beneath herself.

Chaos filled the relatively small room. Senny and Twister had the element of surprise, since these guys had been relying heavily on their magical warning system that Seth and Namythiet had taken down (the former with his special knife, while the pixie used her technological prowess to make sure that the people inside hadn’t been sent any kind of alert about it). But they still weren’t exactly helpless. And there would be reinforcements coming any minute. If Asenath and the others were going to get away with what they needed, they had to be quick.

To that end, Asenath yanked the rifle out of the first man’s hands, tucking it against one shoulder and pulled the trigger while taking aim at the next threat. Nothing happened, save for a rebukeful buzz. Which meant that the person in charge of these goons was clearly smart enough to make sure that only they could use their weapons, rather than an outsider. Terrific.

Oh well, it could still be used as a club. Flipping the gun around, she hurled it into the next man’s face instead, before twisting aside as one of the other guards swung a sword at her. As the blade cut through the air an inch from her face, Senny stepped in and pivoted to catch the man’s outstretched arm. She heaved, throwing him over her shoulder while stripping the weapon from his grasp. They might not be able to utilize the guns, but a sword she could use.

Or not, as the sword immediately shocked her as she grasped the hilt, open electricity playing over it. She was forced to drop the thing quickly, grimacing. Yeah, whoever was behind these guys had a real thing about stopping intruders from using their own people’s weapons against them. Smart. Annoying, but smart.

The gas-figure flowed around and in front of her, turning solid just as he grabbed her arms to yank them out of the way. Holding her wrists tightly, the exceedingly pale red-haired man sneered at her. “I know you,” he hissed. “You’re the human-loving vampire. You’ve got no–”

She slammed her forehead into his face. As the man recoiled and reflexively turned to smoke once more, Asenath’s foot found the sword from earlier, kicking it up into her hand. She grabbed it, thrusting the weapon forward and through the smoke-figure, ending all the way up to her wrists in the man-shaped cloud.

He started to laugh, then saw the vampire girl’s face. She was smiling at him, baring her teeth just as the sword’s safety measure kicked in. Electricity shot out over the hilt of the sword. Senny jerked and spasmed a bit as the shock flooded into her hands. But that same electricity also went through the smoke-figure, which was enough to shock him back into his physical form. A physical form that happened to have the sword and Asenath’s still-twitching hands buried right in the middle of it.

Releasing the sword with a cry, she let the dead man collapse to the ground while seeking the next threat. Twister had taken a cue from her earlier opponent, turning into an enormous rhino while dealing with the werespider, who kept trying to poison her, spitting acid while backing up.

But they still had trouble. Only about half of the original guards were down, and Senny could hear a handful of trucks tearing down the street toward them. The reinforcements.

“It’s blown, it’s blown!” she called to the other girl, taking the time to grab the table and throw it at the remaining men before pivoting to book it back out through the same hole that they had come in.

Twister was right on her heels, shifting form into a horse in time for Senny to grab on and haul herself up in one smooth motion. Then they were tearing across the parking lot, shots from the surprised guards coming entirely too close for comfort. Distantly as they crossed the street, Senny heard the trucks screeching around the last corner before the men who were already there shouted instructions.

They kept running. Senny clung to Twister’s neck as the horse raced through alleys and along side-streets before abruptly shapeshifting once more. Now, instead of riding a horse, Senny was clutching onto an enormous gorilla as it leapt at the nearest building, climbing rapidly.

They reached the roof, and Asenath hopped off, brushing her hands off as she exhaled.  

“Well,” Seth announced as he emerged from the nearby access door into the building, “you cut that one pretty close. We barely had time to get into the basement and deal with the punks down there.”

Ignoring his complaint, Senny asked, “You got it, though?”

“We got it!” Namythiet confirmed triumphantly. She was hovering above Clubber, as the green saber-tooth trotted forward happily with a leather bag dangling from his mouth.

Seth winked, gesturing in agreement. “Course we got it. Thanks for keeping all the boys upstairs busy. Could’ve been messy if they figured out someone was going after the real good stuff in the cellar.” Nodding with his chin then, he added, “Why do you suppose Sinclaire needs it? And who the hell is she working with on this?”  

Reaching down to take the bag from Clubber before giving him an affectionate rub, Senny straightened with a shake of her head. “I don’t know,” she replied simply while shaking the contents out into her palm. For a moment, she just stared at the small, off-white object in her hand. “But I’ll tell you one thing,” the girl murmured thoughtfully, “if this bit of dragon bone is just the first ingredient for whatever her plan is…

“It’s gonna be a doozy.”

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Suspects 24-05

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“I have more questions than there are words in the English language, Chambers.” Avalon had pressed both hands together in a praying position, both index fingers lightly touching her bottom lip. “But I think three of those words work to sum it up adequately. What. The. Fuck.”

Tristan pointed. “Uh, yeah, I’m with her. What do you mean, you’re gonna talk to the Hangman skull? First, isn’t the thing being guarded by, like, full Heretics ever since that little brat went through it? Second, aren’t they supposed to be evil? Third, and again because I cannot stress this enough, already being guarded. Not that we’re not super-awesome, but seriously?”

“Okay.” Holding up both hands, I shook my head. “There isn’t really time to explain it. Not yet. We’re kind of in a rush right now, if we’re gonna get there before the wolves take off. And I’m pretty sure it’s gonna take a bit to actually talk the skull into doing us a solid. So I just need you guys to trust me for a minute, alright?” When they nodded, I reached into my pocket and took out five polished, rounded stones, each about an inches across with several identical engraved symbols on them. Tugging them out, I passed the stones around. There was one for each of us.  

“An audio transmission spell?” Vanessa asked while examining the rock closely. “And a transportation spell. But I can’t tell what the other ones are. Something about silence?”

“Oh, audio transmission,” I replied. “Great, he must’ve added it so we can hear what’s going on. We didn’t have a chance to talk for long, so I wasn’t sure if he’d get to it.”

Before they could ask what I meant by ‘he’, there was a shout. It seemed to come directly from the rocks that we were holding, echoing through the room as it came from five different sources.

“Traitor!” Wyatt’s voice shouted from the rocks once more, making the others jump. With a smile, I waved them to take a look through the window that I had already opened. In the distance, we could make out the sight of two figures in front of the lighthouse. One was a third-year student that I had seen around the school before. His arm was being held by the other figure, Wyatt himself. There was a tray on the ground with food spilled out around it, littered over the grass. The poor guy had almost a foot and a good fifty pounds (at least) on my brother, yet Wyatt was easily holding him in place despite his obvious struggles to the contrary.

Yeah, I’d gone to Wyatt with the problem of how to get up to the Heretical Edge. Like I’d told the others, we hadn’t been able to talk for long. But he’d promised that he had a way of causing a distraction, and before school had ended, he’d slipped the rocks to me for the next step.

“Traitor!” Wyatt shouted again, drowning out the boy’s protests that were also being transmitted. “Who got to you? Who paid you to assassinate our people, hmm? Which of our enemies filled your pockets with gold and fouled your soul with the stench of hired murder?! Who was it, boy?”

There was the sound of another, more distant voice that the rocks didn’t quite pick up. Then the door of the lighthouse opened and a figure stepped out into view. The guard who was helping to make sure that nothing like Ammon popping through happened again. As he came through the door, the man got close enough for the stones to pick up his words. “–is going on out here?”

“This… conspirator,” Wyatt started, still holding the student by the arm, “was attempting to deliver poisoned food to you. No doubt his intention was to wait for it to take effect and then allow his master’s army to slip through while you were choking on your own vomit. Within minutes, they would have overrun the school and killed each and every one of us!”

“Dude!” the older student blurted, “I was delivering the food cuz that chef guy asked me to, chill!”

While Wyatt went on another rather impressive rant, I looked back to the others. “Okay, it’s clear. Wyatt checked it out earlier, there’s just the one guy and multiplying isn’t one of his powers. Rub your thumbs over that rune there and repeat after me. Oh, and the other spells on the rocks are gonna stop all the security alarms that they’ve got up there from going off. So whatever you do, don’t let go of them.” Taking a breath then, I moved my thumb over the stone a few times while speaking clearly so that the others could understand and copy me. “Kusafiri.”

As soon as I said the word, the room around me vanished. I felt a slight twisting sensation in my stomach and stumbled a little bit. When it stopped, I was standing in the top of the lighthouse.

The others appeared a moment later, and I looked around quickly. The light fixture was where it had always been, right in the middle of the platform. I had just taken a step that way when the others appeared all around me as they finished repeating the spell-trigger that Wyatt had set up.

“Okay,” I whispered, “the rocks should also make sure the guy downstairs doesn’t hear us, but let’s not push our luck too much.” As the others nodded, I moved over to the light fixture, the Heretical Edge itself, or at least the part of it that we could actually see.

Once there, I wasn’t sure how to start. I’d wanted to talk to the Hangman ever since I’d figured out that it was the reason that Mom had been able to get into the school grounds undetected, except it was always guarded. But right now, desperate times called for desperate measures. The clock was counting down to us losing our best chance to get that choker from Pace.

“Um.” I started and then stopped, squeezing the stone in my hand. Come on, Flick. Get over it, I thought to myself. Wyatt can only distract that guy for so long. Do this. Talk to the skull.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to talk to the imprisoned Hangman about. I didn’t know if it would care at all about our mission or why we needed to get out there, or about me.

So in the end, I just… talked.

“Hey… I-I’m sorry.” Lifting my hand, I rested it against the edge of the giant bulb that clearly encased the skull. “I… I don’t know how much of what we learned about you was true and how much was lies. Probably most of it was lies. And even if it wasn’t, you don’t deserve to be treated like… this.” Swallowing hard, I continued. “Trapped… broken… used for centuries. What happened to you, what they did, what they’re still doing, it’s wrong. And I wish I could do something about it. I wish I was here to tell you that we had a way to help, that we could… could do… anything. I wish I wasn’t here to ask for a favor. Because now, that just seems… selfish.

“But somehow… somehow I think it’s a little bit okay. I don’t know… almost anything about you, at all. Like I said, I don’t know what the truth is. I don’t know what really happened or what you’re really like. I don’t know any of that. But I do know that you helped my mom. My mom wanted to help Alters, people that the Heretics were killing. She wanted to save them, and you helped her. You helped her get where she needed to be, you shielded her, and you made her powerful. That’s the only thing I know about you for sure, that you helped my mother when you didn’t have to. You helped her so that she could protect others. And that’s not a monster.

“I can’t help you right now. I can’t… do anything to make it better. All I can do is promise that I won’t forget you. I see you. I remember you. You matter. I don’t know what that’s worth, but you do. You matter. And you’re the only one who can help us right now. The Seosten, the ones who really did this to you, they’re in the school. They’re hurting my friends. And the only way we can identify them, the only way we can stop them, is by getting to this location.” I held my phone up to the glass with the GPS coordinates that Roxa had sent me. “If we don’t get there in the next few minutes, we’re gonna miss our chance. We can’t leave the grounds or go to Gaia for help without the Committee’s lackeys noticing. You’re the only chance we have. Believe me, if you don’t want to do anything, I won’t blame you. But I have to ask. Please, please, help us. I’m not-”

My last word was abruptly cut off as the glass of the giant light fixture vanished, making me stumble forward a couple steps before I caught my balance.

Wait, no, it wasn’t just that the light fixture had disappeared. It was that the entire lighthouse was gone. Or rather, I was. The floor beneath my feet had turned into grass and dirt, the air smelled completely different, the weather was significantly cooler, and I could hear cows in the distance.

The others were already recovering. They had appeared right alongside me, transported at the same time. Transported. It had worked. It actually worked. The Hangman had listened to me.

I was still standing there, a little stunned as Shiori lunged over. Her arms wrapped around me, hugging tight enough to make me yelp in surprise. “Flick!” she blurted, “You did it!”

“Not me,” I corrected after catching myself sniffing her hair. “The Hangman did it. Which is just-”

“Hey!” a voice abruptly hissed, making us whirl that way to find a black woman standing there. She looked like she was a few years older than we were, and her short hair was dyed purple. A red-haired guy stood on one side of her while Roxa stood on the other with her mechanical cougar at her hip. The woman was speaking. “I dunno what they teach you about weres up at that school, but they have good hearing. So let’s try not to attract all of them over here by screaming our heads off, mmkay?”

Werewolves, clearly. I didn’t even need my Heretic-sense to tell me that. With Roxa there, it was obvious. They were part of Sean’s uncle’s pack. The Hangman had dropped us right by them.  

“It’s alright, Lesedi,” Mateo himself announced as he came into view, though he kept his voice down. “We’re far enough away that even were-hearing shouldn’t pick us up. And our Wonderland friends have set some stealth enchantments. Though being careful is a good idea.”

He turned his attention to us then. And again, I was surprised by how unimposing the Hispanic man appeared. He looked like he belonged behind a computer, meticulously examining spreadsheets and tax forms, not leading a pack of werewolves. It was still a bit disconcerting.

“You made it,” he announced, extending a hand. “Good to see a bit more help, as much as I hate the idea of letting kids get into this kind of fight.” Pausing, he added, “Though I suppose with the kind of stuff that’s coming for you guys, shielding you from it’s probably a pipe dream.”  

“I think that’s why Gaia isn’t stopping us from getting involved,” I murmured while accepting the man’s hand. “She plays umbrella for the worst of it, but some of it, she’s just gotta let us get hit.”

“So you learn to take it and hit back,” Mateo confirmed, releasing my hand after a moment to shake the others. “Most of you guys I know, but you…” He trailed off, squinting at Shiori and Vanessa for a second until they introduced themselves. “Great, we’re uh, we’re set up over here.” Gesturing over his shoulder, the man paused before adding, “You should get a look at what we’ve got and what we’re dealing with. Make sure you still want to be involved with it.”

I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean, but, with a shrug back at the others, I started to follow after the man as he led us across what looked like a rocky, sagebrush-filled desert in the middle of nowhere. Well, not nowhere. We were actually in southern Utah at the moment, so there was a lot of red rocks, short canyons, and big rock formations. But yeah, pretty far removed from anything resembling civilization. Which made sense, considering I was pretty sure the werewolves wouldn’t be holding their big pow-wow in the convention hall of a Ritz-Carlton. They’d want to be somewhere private, somewhere they could cut loose without being careful.

Stopping by Roxa, I paused before looking to the blonde girl. “I guess we’re doing this, huh?”

Before she could respond, the woman beside her, Lesedi, made a scoffing noise. “Yeah, might as well all throw ourselves at this army just so sunshine can go back to a nice, normal life.”

Lesedi headed off in another direction then, leaving Roxa to sigh. Biting her lip, she watched the woman before her eyes moved back to me, voice low. “She’s upset because she thinks I don’t want to be a part of the pack. She thinks I’m desperate to leave and go back to the Heretics instead of staying with Mateo and the rest. I’m pretty sure they all think that, at least a bit.”

As she said that, Gidget, the cyberform cougar, nudged up against the girl and gave a little whine.

“Do you?” That was Vanessa piping up from behind me. “Do you want to go back, I mean.”

That drew a prolonged hesitation from Roxa before the girl settled on, “I don’t know what I want. It used to be really obvious, you know? Get the choker, go back to being a Heretic as soon as it was safe. I was just gonna go right back to the school, with you guys. But now, after a couple months with the pack…” She hesitated before sighing. “It’s a lot harder than I thought it’d be.”  

“You don’t have to make a decision right this second,” I pointed out. “Let’s just get the option. We need to get the choker away from Pace anyway. And besides, I’m pretty sure that whatever Lemuel’s up to gathering all these werewolves together in one group like this, it’s nothing good.”

Pausing at that, Roxa looked back to us. “It’s not just wolves.” She started to say something else before gesturing for us to follow. “Come on, it’s probably better if you just see it for yourselves.”

So, the five of us followed as she led us the same way that Mateo had been going. We went up a semi-steep hill, following a narrow path until we came out on the edge of a cliff overlooking a wide desert valley. There were a handful of trucks and other vehicles parked there, with a couple dozen people that kept pinging my Heretic-sense as Alters scattered around. Some of them were obviously the Wonderland assistance that had shown up. I could even see Seth and one of the other Septs (the centaur Fennicus) in the distance, having an intense-looking conversation with one of the werewolves. The non-Wonderland Alters meanwhile…

“Hi! Hello, hola, greetings, salutations,” the nine-tailed Kistune known as Busy came trotting up, grinning at us. “Good to see you again, the ones I’ve seen before, yes. Very good, except for the bad things out there. Nasty things, not so good. So many bad people. But you, you aren’t. You’re good, quite good. Coming to help, yes. So hello and greetings again, like I said before.”

Snickering a little despite myself, I gestured. “Guys, this is Busy. Busy, I guess you already saw Avalon and Shiori back at the camp. But this is Vanessa and Tristan. They’re here to help. And I guess you are too, which means that Gabriel got the message I sent?” I’d used the phone to send a text message about what was going on, hoping that the Atherby clan would be able to spare some help. And from the look of things, they had done just that. Though aside from a couple, I couldn’t tell which people were from Wonderland and which ones were from the clan.

The dark-skinned Kitsune bobbed his head up and down quickly. “Yes, yes, indubitably and affirmative. He’d never abandon you to such creatures, never leave you alone if given the chance. Sadly, unfortunately, and lamentably, other events prioritize his presence and assistance. Gabriel himself cannot be here in person. But he sent us to help, sent us to intercede, sent us to lend aid. I hope and wish that our aid and assistance will be sufficient.”

“Dude,” Tristan piped up then while giving a thumbs up. “I knew a Kitsune back with Nicholas, and if you’re anywhere near as useful as she was to have around, those wolves are in trouble.”

“Oh yes, indeed and of course. Wolves and others, all in trouble,” the other man agreed.

Before I could say anything to that, Mateo beckoned for us to join him at the edge of the ridge. I could see some others up there, including Duncan and Misty from the clan, as well as both Buddy the troll from Wonderland and his boss in the security division, the blue-feathered, bird-like Lavinso named Quing. All of them were staring off of the ridge, most using binoculars.

We made our way up there, passing more Alters who took deliberately wide berths around us, most of them staring and whispering behind our backs. Clearly, Crossroads Heretics weren’t the most popular allies among the Wonderland Alters. Not that I could blame them, after what I’d seen.

“Privet, druz’ya moy!” Buddy greeted us while thumping a massive hand against his even more massive chest. He was giving a wide, toothy smile. “Hello, my friends! Ve are here to be smacking und smashing dze bad guys, yes?”

Smiling, I nodded. “Hey, Buddy. Yup, they are gonna be one smashed clump of bad guys when we’re through.”

Beside the troll, Quing made a noncommittal noise. The bird-man pointedly wasn’t looking at us, though his body language was definitely tense.

“Hey,” Tristan started to blurt. “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like the bird-guy from Star Fo–”

“Don’t,” I quickly stopped the boy, shaking my head. It probably wasn’t a good subject to bring up.

To my surprise, however, Quing glanced over. His eyes were as hard as ever, but he replied, “You think I look like him, or does he look like me? Where do you think they got the idea for the character, kid?”

Leaving Tristan to work out if the guy was kidding or not, I looked back to the rest of the people gathered up here on the ridge. Roxa was there too. As I turned that way, she handed over another pair of binoculars and pointed off in the distance. “Look way out there, at the base of the mountain.”

Before I could even lift them, Vanessa was gasping from beside me. The half-Seosten girl was standing there, staring off without any visible aid. When I blinked at her, she flushed a little bit and muttered under her breath, “Telescopic vision, from an Ispec. It’s a long story.”

“But an awesome one,” Tristan put in. “They’re these wicked little–they kinda look like Sovereign. You know, Aylen’s metal bird? Only about three and a half feet tall and the metal stuff that’s over them is actually this hardened liquid that they pump out of their–never mind. Long story. You should’ve seen Nessa out there though.”

Lifting my chin, I asked, “Does that mean you don’t need the binoculars either?”

“Me?” Tristan’s head shook. “Nah, I didn’t get the same power she did. Me, I can do…” Lifting a hand, his eyes narrowed with focus. I saw what started out looking like a single dot of metallic liquid, almost like a raindrop or a bit of sweat appear on the back of his hand. Over a second or two, it spread out into a feather-shaped bit of metal sticking up a little bit. Tristan waited until we’d all seen it, then exhaled. As he did so, the feather shot out of his hand like a dart, cutting halfway into a nearby heavy boulder before it stopped.

Shiori whistled low at that. “Wow, dude. That’s pretty cool.”

“No kidding,” I agreed. “But let’s see what really not-cool thing we’re looking at out there.” Lifting the binoculars to my eyes at that, I looked the way they had directed.

It took a few seconds to focus in on the base of the distant mountain, but once it did, I choked a little bit.

They were right. There were weres out there. A lot of them. And not just werewolves. I could see them in animal and half-animal forms of all different kinds. Wolves, but also bears, snakes, coyotes, crows, and even a few more exotic animals like tigers, a couple apes, and a crocodile. They were all scattered across the desert field, around trucks and tents, as well as plenty of tables laden down with food.

“You’re right,” I murmured, “this isn’t just a werewolf convention. He’s got all kinds of weres out there. Dozens of them.”

Mateo’s voice was low. “Yup. He’s recruiting an army. Not sure what the point is yet, but… let’s just say it can’t be for anything good.” His words were punctuated by a low growl from Gidget.

“Right.” I nodded slowly while lowering the binoculars to stare off that way unaided. They were barely a speck in the distance. “Which means that this isn’t just about getting that choker. It’s about stopping Lemuel. Whatever that takes.”

Quing spoke up from nearby. “Then we better hurry up, because those trucks that just pulled in are about to pick up his pack. If we don’t get down there right now, they’ll be gone.”

“Stopping Lemuel before he leaves, grabbing the choker,” Shiori intoned with a straight face that twitched just a little as she fought to hold it, “either way, you might say we have to… pick up the pace.”

I didn’t bother fighting the slight snicker that came at that. It was good to smile, at least for a second. Because whatever happened over the next few minutes was bound to be nasty. But it had to be done. Whatever Lemuel was up to, he couldn’t be allowed to send this army of were-creatures out into the world.

At least he wasn’t the only one with an army. On our side, we had Mateo’s pack, a few more werewolves they had pulled into the fight with them, the Wonderland people, the ones from the Atherby clan, and the five of us from Crossroads. It wasn’t nearly as big as the force that Lemuel had pulled together, but it was going to have to do the job. Because right now, right here, there wasn’t anyone else.

This wasn’t going to be a fight like I’d seen before, a skirmish between a few people.

It was going to be a war.  

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Mini-Interlude 30 – Seth and Shiori

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Seth and Shiori during the events of the current chapters, while Flick, Avalon, and Gabriel are upstairs dealing with Fahsteth. 

Also, please note that there is an important message about donations, the Patreon, and bonus chapters in general in my first comment at the bottom of this chapter. Please take a moment to check that comment if you have any interest in such things. Thank you. 

The thing looked like it was made of bones and a few patches of rotting skin and exposed muscles. Its front half was shaped roughly similar to a crocodile (or at least the skeleton of one), while the back half was more like a kangaroo. It was that back half where most of the muscles were, muscles that allowed the thing to leap tremendous distances before snapping its impressive jaws (where the remaining muscles were) shut on its prey.

That prey, in this particular case, was Shiori Porter. The young hybrid dhampyr-Heretic was just spinning away from her most recent opponent to see the collection of bones and rotting flesh lunge at her when Seth’s hand caught the thing by the neck bone just behind its head. Those powerful jaws slammed shut a few inches from the girl’s face before he yanked the thing back. Pivoting, the three hundred-year-old vampire slammed the captured skeleton-croc into the nearby wall with enough force to punch its body through the wall before yanking it back out. Briefly stunned as it was, the thing didn’t move as Seth dropped it on the ground, bringing his foot down hard enough on the point where its head connected to its body to almost separate the two.

It lay there, paralyzed from the damage to its spine, feebly snapping its jaws a few times while Seth turned to the girl with a gesture. “Finish it,” he instructed while glancing toward the other creatures visible through the glass door in the motel lot. Whatever those kids had been doing up with Fahsteth, it had apparently resulted in summoning a handful of Alter-animals from other worlds. But since the creatures weren’t being controlled or directed at all, they were mostly just fighting one another (or, in the current case, circling and snarling at each other while clearly utterly confused about where they were and how they’d ended up there). They were, in the end, just animals that had been yanked away from their homes and dumped into a strange land.

Shiori, meanwhile, just blinked at him. “Uh, wait, why do you want me to–”

Keeping his foot on the thing’s neck, Seth replied simply, “Because the only thing I get from killing these creepy things is a sense of personal satisfaction, kid. But you actually get stronger from doing it. So finish it off and we’ll go deal with the rest of those things before they spread out and start attacking people.”   

She gave him a brief look at that, while he simply glanced away to keep an eye on the things in the lot. So far, they were too busy having a collective pissing match with each other to worry about moving out into the streets and eventual houses beyond the motel. But that wouldn’t last forever.

Thankfully, the kid didn’t take long to snap out of her surprise. From the corner of his eye, he saw her take one of her spinning disks. Charging it up with enough electricity to take down a decent sized bull moose, she waited for him to lift his foot off the thing’s neck before shoving the disc right up to its head. There was a brief screech from the skeleton-croc before it went still for good.

Meanwhile, Shiori herself seized up a bit, giving a familiar gasp of pleasure that brought to mind other, far less pleasant encounters with Heretics. Seth had had plenty over the centuries, and far too many of them ended with him taking advantage of one of the Heretic-fucks being briefly indisposed as they reacted to the sudden wave of pleasure they got from killing one of his friends. Or at least one of his acquaintance or allies. Either way, the memories weren’t fun.

Thankfully, a distraction came in the form of one of the Alters that had wandered away from the others far enough to spot the two of them. It was a Cù-Sith, a massive, wolf-like hound the size of a bull. Seth had only seen a couple before, and they were always a pain in the ass because of the–

The thing gave an astoundingly loud bark that shattered the glass of the doors as well as a couple of the nearby windows. It was a focused sound, like the sort used by the banshees. But more than that, the bark had a debilitating mental effect that was magnified with each subsequent iteration that came in short succession. By the time of the third such bark, most normal humans who were subjected to it were left dead on the floor, bleeding from their ears and eyes as their brains were literally liquified.

For those with enhanced hearing like a vampire, it only took two to put them on the ground. It wouldn’t kill them (they were a lot harder to kill than that), but it would take a long time to recover. Too long. And frankly, he didn’t feel like dealing with that again.

To that end, as the giant wolf-dog geared up for another devastating bark, Seth blurred his way through the now-empty doorway where the glass had been.

Vampiric speed was far more like a cheetah than a horse. Vampires were sprinters, not marathon runners. They could run at incredible, blinding speed, but only for a relatively short distance before they needed to take a breath and recover. In this case, however, he only had to travel about eight feet, from the doorway of the motel to the front of the parking lot. There, his foot found one of the concrete bumpers set at the front of each parking spot. The resulting kick sent the heavy concrete block spinning up through the air to smack into the face of the hound an instant before it would have barked. Instead of making that terrible, devastating noise, the thing reared back with a yelp.

The concrete block was rebounding off after smacking the dog in the snout. Before it could finish falling, however, Seth had already recovered enough to blur his way forward once more. He caught the end of it, then used both its momentum and his own to spin in a quick circle before slamming the block into the side of the Cù-Sith’s head.

It collapsed, giving a pitiful little moan before starting to pick itself up. Or at least, it did before he took the time to break both of its front legs with a couple of well-placed kicks.

“Got another one,” he informed Shiori then, since she was focused once more. “Take it.”

That time, the kid didn’t argue or hesitate that much. She put the big hound out of its misery before giving another little gasp, eyes fluttering as that Heretic death-pleasure worked its way through her.

“You good, Zipper?” he asked flatly once she had recovered.

“Flick and Avalon–” the girl started with a worried look behind them, back to the stairs.

“–are just fine,” he finished for her. “Believe me. Gabriel went in there. They’ll be good. But we gotta get out there.” He nodded to the animals in the lot. “Because those things out there aren’t gonna keep each other busy for long.”

That at least convinced Shiori to start with him the lot, toward the other animals. But she hesitated partway there, her voice quiet. “I’m-umm–”

“Surprised I care if the things go slaughter a few humans?” Seth finished for her, a slight smirk on his face.

She flinched at that. “I didn’t mean it that way. But umm… I mean, the way Senny talks–”

“Senny and I have different priorities,” he confirmed. “She’d go out there and risk her life to fight those things just because she saw it as the right thing to do. For me, it’s pragmatic. First, if those humans were killed, it’d make you feel bad. And while I could give a toss if a couple humans bite it, cuz fuck knows there’s enough of them, I do care about how you feel.

“And second, if those things get out and start doing enough damage, it’ll attract Heretic attention. Get enough Heretics out here and they might find something to draw them to you. I don’t want that.”

For a moment, Shiori said nothing. She just looked at him, mouth open. “You–but–you don’t even know me.”

In response, Seth winked, his voice as casual as ever. “Don’t have to. Like I said before, Zippy, you’re family. Tiras was like a dad to me for a long time. Or a brother. Whatever. It all kinda blends together after awhile. He was my sire, my teacher, my world. It was him and me for a couple years, then Jiao. About twelve years after that, your big sis came along. Family.”

“I thought you were just messing with us,” the girl admitted quietly, biting her lip as she stared at him. “I mean, about seeing me as a sister or a niece or whatever.”

“Fair,” he admitted. “I mess with a lot of people. It’s a lot more fun than piloting through the rivers of this long fucking life by using the stick up your ass like a rudder.”

He paused then before reaching out, using two fingers to brush the much younger girl’s hair up away from her eyes. “Zipper, you got a lot of choices in this life. I ain’t gonna tell you what to do about your morality, what hills you choose to live and die on. That’s up to you. I got my morality, my choices, my things I care about. I ain’t gonna apologize for any of it, and neither should you. But what I will tell you, is that this shit can get awfully lonely. Seeing people live and die, live and die, live and die, it gets old right along with you. So if you find people, anybody that you think you could get along with… you hold onto ‘em. Even if you almost never see ‘em… even if they don’t see you the way you see them… you do what you can to keep them safe, to keep them alive. Because people you care about can be like lighthouses in the dark, stormy gods damned ocean of this severely fucked up world. They keep you honest, and they keep your ship off those rocks. They can give you direction, even if they never really see you.

“So you ask, do I really give a shit about you? Yeah, Zip, I do. That ain’t a joke. You can feel about me and my choices however you want. I’ll keep paddling along in the dark. But you shine enough, and I’ll stay off the rocks.”

For a moment, Shiori said nothing. Finally, she managed, “You’re different than Asenath said.”

He smiled faintly at that. “I suspect I am. But that’s family for you.” He nodded to the lot then. “So you wanna play hero and see what kind of powers we can rack up for you, or what?”

She bit her lip then, glancing that way. “I feel bad about it. They didn’t ask to come here.”

“True,” he replied. “But you let ‘em wander around out there and they’ll do a lot more damage. Think of it as like when those animal services people put down a bear that starts wandering into people’s homes. It’s for the best.”

He didn’t add that if he had his way, the girl would kill every last Alter she needed to in order to be able to survive the kind of shit she was getting herself into. It probably wouldn’t go over well. Let her focus on the poetic shit.

Finally, Shiori nodded. “Okay. Okay. But can I ask you one question? Why do you call me Zipper?”

The question made him grin. “Wondered how long it’d take you to ask. Why? Simple, Zip. I was born in the seventeen hundreds. Zippers, well they didn’t really get to be a big thing until the 1920’s. Just something I never thought about, but now… well, I can’t imagine being without ‘em. Little, tiny thing that doesn’t seem like it should be important, like, at all. But it makes life a lot better than it was. That’s why you’re Zipper, kid.

“Now let’s go kill this shit, cuz I need a drink.”  

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Sharkhunt 23-05

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln, Asenath, and Twister posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to click the previous chapter button above. 

My dad knew the truth. My dad knew the truth. Somehow, he had broken the Bystander Effect. He remembered. He knew what Asenath was, what I had been dealing with through the  year. He knew about Mom. He knew all of it. Or enough of it at least. He… he knew. He actually  knew.

I still wasn’t exactly sure which was more shocking to me, that, or the fact that our home had been attacked by werewolves. Lemuel’s pack had actually been pissed enough about Doxer (more likely motivated by Pace) to go after my dad. It shouldn’t have surprised me, honestly. Yet somehow, it did. I’d expected Fossor or Ammon to try something at some point, but the wolves?

Apparently, I’d been zoning out for a few seconds while trying to cope with that particular surprise, because Shiori touched my shoulder as her voice prompted, “Flick? Are you okay?” The girl was standing beside me while Avalon was a bit behind her. Both of their expressions were worried.

Shaking off the feelings as much as I could, I nodded. “I’m fine. I mean, not really fine, but… good enough. I’ll be okay, I promise. It’s just… my dad. My dad knows. He’s still a normal human, but he knows anyway.  How many people have broken the Bystander Effect like that before?”

“A normal human without help?” Avalon shrugged, head shaking. “None, that I know of.”

Behind me, Gabriel cleared his throat a bit pointedly. When I looked that way, the man casually admitted, “Ah, well, your father may not have done it entirely without help.” Before I could do more than open my mouth as my eyes widened, he held up a hand. “It’s not my story to tell, or my secret to give away. What I can say is that someone important wanted your father to learn the truth, so they made it possible. They don’t mean him or you any harm. That much I can promise you. They aren’t a threat to you. They… owe your mother a debt. But, like I said, anything more than that is a secret that I can’t tell you. I’m sorry. You’ll have to wait until they’re ready to talk.”  

Owed my mother? Someone out there was powerful enough to make sure Dad actually broke the Bystander Effect and they owed my mother a favor? What–was it a Seosten? They’d created the Bystander Effect, so they should be able to remove it, right? There could be other good (or at least tolerable) Seosten out there like Tristan and Vanessa’s mother, couldn’t there?

I shook that off. Randomly speculating wasn’t going to accomplish anything. And I knew from looking at Gabriel that he wasn’t going to tell me anything else. He was absolutely serious about not spoiling other people’s secrets. Which, I supposed, should just make me feel better about all of my secrets that he was keeping. And he was clear about the fact that whoever was behind Dad finding out the truth wasn’t trying to hurt us. I believed that he would’ve told me otherwise.

Still, I was working my way up to argue with him anyway when Avalon simply said, “Fahsteth.”

Fuck. Right, we didn’t have time. Sighing, I looked at the man once more. “I still have questions.”

His head bowed in a slight nod. “And I’ll be glad to answer everything that I can. I’m sorry that I can’t tell you more right now. But I owed you at least that much.  Your father is safe with Asenath and Esevene for now, but I’ll send people to pick them up and get them here before you’re done.”

I started to nod at that, then blinked in confusion. “Esevene? Who’s Esevene?”  .

Gabriel tilted his head before giving a nod of realization. “Right, you only know her as Twister.”

Twister’s real name was Esevene. I didn’t see that coming. Esevene sounded like some kind of Tolkien elf or high-brow noble woman. The girl I knew… Twister fit much more than Esevene.

Again, that was something I had to shake off while looking to Avalon. “Did you get ahold of Gaia?”

“Yes,” she replied. “But she can’t help directly right now. The… a couple representatives of the Committee showed up. She couldn’t really talk, but I’m pretty sure they were there to ask about what happened at your father’s house. They wanted to find you,” she added, “but she’s stalling them.”

“Wh–” My eyes widened. “The Committee is there looking for me?”

Avalon shook her head. “Breathe, Chambers. Not members of the Committee. Representatives from them. Their… assistants, basically. And Gaia’s taking care of it. She told them that you’re out on a training mission with Professor Dare, that since you’re up all night anyway, she wanted you kept busy. So they’re waiting until we get back. We just have to make it quick. Unfortunately, since the Committee’s personal representatives are there, they’re monitoring all transit on and off the island. Which means–”

Blowing out a long breath, I muttered, “Which means we can’t get any help from anyone else there. No calling for Wyatt or anything. And now we have to do all of it and get back before those guys get tired of waiting. Because what this whole thing really needed was more pressure.”

“We already had a time limit,” Avalon pointed out. “Fahsteth won’t be there for long. This doesn’t change anything. We get in, find out what we need, and then get back to the school. You just have to act surprised when they tell you about your dad.”

“Oh, trust me,” I assured her, “I’ve got plenty of surprise left in me. So let’s get this done. Gabriel?”

“Of course,” he replied. “If you’re all ready?” He waited until we nodded before raising his shovel. As he brought it down once more into the dirt, our surroundings abruptly changed. The transport was as sudden as it was completely unobtrusive. One second we were by the lake, and in the next, the scenery had changed. It was like blinking during a scene change on TV.

The place that Seth had told us Fahsteth was holed up in was a broken-down three-story motel on the edge of Seattle. Apparently, the place had been closed for renovations (and pest extermination) for several months, and it wouldn’t be anywhere near ready to open again for quite awhile. Which apparently had made it an ideal place for the shark-man to lay low, until now.

We appeared in a field behind the motel, far enough away to avoid prematurely setting off any surprises that Fahsteth had waiting. And somehow, through either coincidence or intent (considering the source, I was leaning heavily toward the latter), Gabriel had deposited us a few feet away from a figure that I recognized through the glow from the distant streetlights as Seth.

The vampire sensed us immediately, spinning around on one foot while his hand moved to the inside of his jacket. I caught a glimpse of some kind of knife before he stopped himself. “Ah, you,” he announced. “Give a guy a warning next time you decide to drop–” He stopped in mid-sentence as his gaze found Gabriel, and I actually saw him swallow just a bit. Cool and collected as he was, even Seth reacted noticeably to the sight of the former slave. “You brought some company.”

“Good to see you again, Seth.” Gabriel’s voice was casual, giving no indication that he had even noticed. “Hope you don’t mind, I didn’t want to send the girls off on their own. Not with Fahsteth.”

Any reaction that Seth had had to the man was fully suppressed by that point, and he shrugged. “Can’t blame you. He’s a nasty ratbag and those girls seem to like to get into trouble a lot.”

“More like we were born with one of those ‘take-a-number’ machines by our cribs for all the people that wanted to screw with us,” I muttered under my breath, then gestured. “He’s in there?”

“For now,” Seth replied, glancing to the motel in the distance. “He’s waiting for his ride off-world.”

“How’s he planning on getting off-world anyway?” I wondered. “Some kind of Alter or a spell?”

“Alter,” came the response. “He’s got a guy on the way that specializes in transporting people off this rock, and he’s really motivated to leave. So if you wanna talk to him, better make it fast.”

Beside me, Shiori piped up. “Do you know which room he’s in?”

“Oh, hey, sis.” Seth gave her an easy smile. One that, despite the misgivings that Asenath had about him, I thought was genuine. “Almost didn’t see you there. Not exactly. He’s up on the third floor there, but for the exact room… well, you’re gonna have to get up there yourselves.”

“He’s warded the place,” Gabriel announced after squinting at the building for a moment. “Probably to keep the Seosten from finding him. Either way, I can’t see through them.”

He started to say something else before stopping short. Turning, the man held a hand up. “Wait.” He frowned slightly before looking across the field, away from the road. “They’re here.”

I started to ask who ‘they’ were, only to fall silent as it became apparent. Five, no, six massive figures were suddenly tearing across the field toward us. Amaroks. Six god damn Amaroks, each bigger than a city bus, were coming straight at us. Their paws tore up the ground as they charged.

“This,” I remarked, my throat dry, “is not the act of people who give a shit about subtlety anymore.”

Yeah, we should’ve known that whoever was behind this had access to those things. After all, they had managed to sic one of them on the team during our first hunt in an attempt to kill Avalon. But still, throwing an entire pack at Fahsteth? They wanted that guy dead with a capital d.

In the midst of me trying to think about how we were going to have to work together to deal with the damn things, however, Gabriel spoke a simple word. “Go.” He gestured over his shoulder. “Seth, take them inside. Get to Fahsteth and find out what he knows. I’ll deal with these guys.”

I started to ask if he was sure, but stopped myself as the man plucked up his shovel and walked calmly out to meet the incoming giant wolves. He moved not like a man who was about to be in a fight, but like someone who was walking through the store deciding what kind of milk to pick up.

Seth was already moving toward the motel. I started to follow along with Shiori, only to stop and glance back at Avalon, who hadn’t moved. “Valley,” I prompted. “We need to go, he’ll be fine.”

“I know he will,” the other girl replied, her voice almost plaintive. “But I really want to see this.”

Oh. Right, she wasn’t worried that Gabriel needed help. She wanted to watch him kill the Amaroks. That I could… yeah, I could totally understand it. But still, “It’s Fahsteth,” I prompted.

That was enough. As much as she (and I, really) wanted to see what the man did to those poor wolves, the chance to actually find out something about the people who had been trying to kill her (and had killed her mother) was even more important. She pivoted and gave me a slight nod before the two of us bolted toward the motel once more, hurrying to catch up with Shiori and Seth.

At the doorway into the building, the vampire held a hand up to stop us. “Fire-ward,” he explained while giving a nod toward the door. Looking that way, I could barely make out a rune carefully etched into the wood there. It seemed to glow slightly, as if it was reflecting firelight somehow.

“Step past it,” Seth remarked, as casually as ever, “and you’ll spontaneously combust. It’s like the protection line your nursemaids up at that school of yours have around their super-special building. Only instead of making you a bit sick, it turns you into a toasted marshmallow.”

“This guy really doesn’t want visitors, does he?” Shiori put in. “How do we get past it?”

“The twins taught me how to short-circuit stuff like that,” I started. “If we have some electri–”

Before I could finish the sentence, Seth reached back under his jacket, coming back out with the knife that I had caught a glimpse of earlier. Now I had a chance to get a better look at it. The handle appeared to be made out of bone of some kind. Meanwhile, rather than any kind of metal, the blade itself looked like it was dark blue glass. As the rest of us watched, the vampire casually drew the knife across the rune. As that azure blade touched the spell rune, I saw some kind of weird, ghost-like energy sucked up out of the wood before the rune itself turned dark and seemed to fade back into the wood until it was even less noticeable than it had already been.

“There,” Seth announced before reaching out to push the door open. He strode right through, glancing back after sniffing the air. “You coming or what?”

“What… what is–what did you…” I was staring at the strange knife in his hand.

His knowing smirk returned. “This? Just a little toy I picked up off a guy that… wasn’t gonna need it anymore.” From the way he said it, I had a feeling I knew why the guy didn’t need it. “Blade absorbs all the energy from any spell it touches, cuts them off completely. It’s got its uses.”

“That–that kind of thing isn’t common, is it?” I had to ask. The idea of there being a knife out there somewhere, or anything like that, that could just cut away the magic that was used to protect Avalon (or any of the other spells that we relied on) that easily was kind of terrifying.  

Winking, Seth shook his head. “Far as I know, it’s the only one of its kind. Took a pretty big chunk out of me to get it too, and I mean that literally. Had to spend a month recovering. So don’t go blabbing about it to all your little schoolmates, got it?” Waggling the blade at me, he slipped it away back under his jacket before turning away. After giving a slight sniff, he started to walk.

Giving the other two a look, I tugged my staff out of its place at my hip and hit the button to charge it while starting to follow. We moved together through the fairly dark motel corridor, illuminated only by a few emergency lights that were positioned here and there. Enough to see if anything was there, but still leave the place eerily dark. Doors leading into various motel rooms lined both sides of the corridor, while I could see what looked like a front office at the far end. It wasn’t just dark, it was also silent. Well, except for the sound of wolves alternately howling and yipping outside.

For a moment, I wondered what the ordinary people out there were hearing when it came to the Amaroks. But before I could dwell too much on that, there was the sound of a loudspeaker crackling to life. A voice spoke up through it. “Now I don’t recall ordering any food for my trip, but if you wanna deliver yourself all gift-wrapped and shit, I ain’t gonna complain too much.”

Turning in a circle, I found the source of the voice in a speaker box that was up in the corner. There was a security camera next to it. My mouth opened to say something, but Avalon beat me to it.

“Fahsteth!” she called, staring up at the camera. “We need to talk to you.”

There was a chuckle in the shark-man’s voice as he replied, “That you, kid? You’ve grown up, huh? Lucky you, I ain’t interested in finishing the job anymore. So take a walk and count your blessings.”

It was my turn to talk then, as I put in, “We’re not leaving until we talk to you, Fahsteth. You don’t owe these people anything. They’re trying to kill you just to shut you up. So why not tell us what you know? What could it hurt at this point?”

“Maybe I just don’t like you very much,” came the retort. “But you know, if you won’t leave, you can play with some of my toothy little friends.”

“Sharks?” I asked, turning to look down the hall. “I don’t see any water. They might have trouble.”  

Another chuckle came then. “Sharks… yeah, me and your sharks have a bit of a connection. Heard you’ve got something of the same. But you’re a bit behind, Barbie. See, you’re limited to sharks. Weak power and all. But me? Well…” As he trailed off for a moment, I heard multiple growls coming from every direction. Up and down the hall, animals came into view through the dim light. Wolves (the normal size kind), a couple leopards, some snakes, spiders the size of small dogs, and more all crowded into both ends of the corridor.

“See,” Fahsteth explained over the PA. “I don’t control sharks, little girl. I control predators. Period. So uh, you all have fun with that. I’ll be–oh look, here comes my ride.”

The animals were coming, and the shark-man was about to leave. We didn’t have time for this, we didn’t have time to deal with them. He was going to be gone, and we’d never find him again. If we didn’t stop the son of a bitch now, we’d lose our chance to find out what he knew.

So fuck it. Holding the staff out, I hit the button to call Jaq and Gus out. “Guys,” I announced. “Time to fight.”

Even as the robot mice ran to either end of the staff to convert themselves into the blade and grapple, Seth was already meeting the leap of one of the wolves. He caught it by the throat, shoved the thing back against the wall before driving his blade into its chest, then sliced straight down to literally gut the thing before hurling it into the body of the next one to leap. “Go!” He ordered. “I got this. Just don’t fucking die before I catch up, understand?”  

Shiori, meanwhile, gave a beagle-sized arachnid a hard kick before throwing one of her electrified discs into the face of an approaching cat that was coming from the other side of the hall. “I’ll stay with Seth,” she said, giving me a quick look. “I’ll watch his back, you guys get to Fahsteth.”

“We can’t cut through,” Avalon muttered with obvious frustration, conjuring a couple blades from her gauntlets. “It’ll take too long.”

“Then we don’t go through them,” I replied simply. “We go over them.”

With that, I pointed my staff toward the ceiling and hit the button to trigger the charge that I had been building up in it ever since entering the motel. The kinetic energy erupted from the staff, blowing a hole not just through the ceiling, but through the ceiling above that one too, leaving a clear shot to the third floor.

As dust and debris fell, and Shiori and Seth fought with the animals that Fahsteth had summoned, I held a hand out to Avalon. “Come on!”

She dismissed her blades and stepped close. As the girl wrapped her arms around me tightly, I pointed the staff up once more. The grapple was sent flying upward through the holes before latching into the ceiling of the third floor. Then the two of us were yanked up along the energy-line, hauled away from the horde of animals below as we flew to reach the top floor in a couple seconds.

Dropping off the line and onto the floor, I retracted the grapple before releasing Avalon. My finger found the button to start charging the staff again, just in case. Below, I could hear the fight continue. Outside was much the same. Gabriel, Seth, and Shiori were all buying us time to get to Fahsteth and find out what he knew.

Without even glancing to one another, Avalon and I started to run. There wasn’t time to joke, there wasn’t time to say or do anything other than sprint. We had to stop Fahsteth from leaving. We had to get there in time.

The good news was, it wasn’t hard to figure out which room the shark-mercenary was in. The bad news was, it was a room that was completely covered by steel plates. Fahsteth had welded thick metal sheets over the whole place, clearly prepared for one last stand.

“Fuck, fuck!” I hit the metal, and it dented in a little bit. But not enough. I wouldn’t be able to get through it before it was too late. It would take minutes to break down. Minutes that we didn’t have.

Then I turned. “Wood! Valley, wood!”

She blinked once before thankfully realizing what I was babbling about. “No, no,” she blurted. “You can’t–”

“I’ve got this,” I promised her. “He’s gonna be gone, Valley. He’s gonna leave. We don’t have time! Do it. I’ll stall him until you get through. I’ll be okay. I’ve got this, Valley, I swear. Trust me.”

She still looked horrified by the suggestion, but after a brief second, her hand slapped against the metal, and Avalon used her own power to convert any object into wood. It worked slowly enough that it would take at least a minute to actually turn the entire wall. But within a few seconds, there was a small, palm-sized spot of wood right there in the middle of the hard steel.

It was enough. Reaching out, I put my hand against the wood and then threw myself through it and into the room on the other side.

Popping out, I was just in time to see Fahsteth. The shark-man was on the other side of the room, near the window that had been similarly covered with metal. In front of him, there was a much smaller figure, a man with dark-purple skin and bright red, wild hair. Somewhere in the back of my head, the Heretic-Sense was helpfully letting me know that these two were both Alters, which was clearly the most shocking news of the day. Their hands were touching, and there was a sort-of electric current in the air. Power. The man was summoning power to teleport.

“No!” I shouted, my staff whipping up. I released the power that I’d been charging it up with, and the kinetic blast slammed into the purple figure. He was torn away from Fahsteth at the last possible instant, hitting the far wall hard before collapsing into a heap.

“Like… Avalon said…” I started while the shark-man slowly turned to face me, murder in his eyes.

“We need to talk.”

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Sharkhunt 23-04

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln Chambers’s efforts to bypass the Bystander Effect that was posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

It was time to head back to Crossroads. There was still a lot I wanted to ask these people who had grown up not just with my mother, but with more members of my family on that side. I had more questions than I could even keep straight in my head. Still, after waking Shiori and Avalon and as we walked back out of the cabin with Gabriel, one in particular stuck in my head.

So, looking toward the man who was guiding us, I started, “You said that they had this system for determining who would be the leader of the clan here, picking from the available heirs. But from what I can tell, Lyell was the leader for a really long time. That journal of his at the school was started in 1362, and from I’ve seen of it, he seemed to be the leader then. Not that it actually mentions the clan or anything, which is kind of… okay, it’s really weird that he doesn’t mention it.”

Gabriel gave a slight snort, head shaking as he glanced over toward me. “I wouldn’t put too much stock in anything you read from any of your ancestors that shows up in that school. It’s most likely been, let’s say ‘edited’ by their people. You think Ruthers would allow any mention of an alternative to their society in that school where impressionable young minds could pick it up?”

“Yeah, there didn’t seem to be too much interesting stuff in it.” Pausing, I amended, “Okay, there was a lot of interesting stuff. I mean it’s from hundreds of years ago. But it seemed… sterilized.”

Beside me, Avalon gave a slight nod. Even being woken up after a nap, she looked gorgeous. Her hair was heavily tousled, but in a way that was like in television shows or movies where they muss up someone’s hair to show that they were sleeping, yet it still ends up being pretty perfect.

“I read some of it,” she announced. “It was obviously doctored. I’m sure some of it is in his own words, but anything that disagreed with or contradicted the party line would’ve been removed.”

I coughed at that. “No wonder he goes on about never trusting Strangers and how evil they are.”

Shiori, who somehow looked more cuddly than ever, spoke up then, her attention on Gabriel. “Flick said you told her that he wrote that part right after everything that happened with Fossor.”

Gabriel nodded. “As I said, Lyell was angry. He wrote things in his anger that he came to change his mind about later. Of course, Crossroads would have removed those parts of the journal.”

“Figures,” I muttered, shaking my head. “Is there any way to get the unedited version? I mean, there must be one around here somewhere, right?” I added a hopeful look toward Gabriel.

“Unfortunately, the best way to see Lyell’s journal unedited,” he replied, “would be to bring it here and have someone take the time to fix it. I doubt even Ruthers would risk losing information permanently that could come in handy later. So he probably used magic to edit the book rather than physically tearing stuff out. Theoretically, it could be undone, if you can get the book here.”

“Gaia could probably do it,” I started, before realizing, “but she would have already if there wasn’t something stopping her. Maybe there’s some kind of alert on the book or something if it’s messed with. So maybe bringing it here is a bad idea, in case it sends up a signal or something.”

Shaking my head at the distraction, I brought the subject back around to why I’d started asking about this stuff in the first place. “But my point was, Lyell was the leader for a really long time. Hundreds of years. So how long ago was this clan… founded, I guess? If it was established at least as far back as the thirteen hundreds, and it’d been around long enough before that they already had a whole system to determine who the clan leader would be, how old is it?”

Smiling a bit at the question, the man remarked, “I wondered how long it’d take you to ask about that. The rest of the clan had something of a wager going on.” He paused then, clearly taking a moment to decide the best way to answer. “What do you think of your mother’s maiden name?”

“Maiden name?” I echoed. “You mean Atherby? I, uhh, dunno. I guess I never really thought about it that much. I tried looking it up to see if Mom had any other family back in middle school, but never really got anywhere. It’s not very common. But other than that…” I shrugged helplessly.

He chuckled. “It’s okay. It’s not really anything you could be expected to just know that easily. But you know you pronounce the name wrong.” He added the last bit with a pointedly raised eyebrow.  

I blinked. “Wrong?” Frowning, I spoke it aloud again, sounding it out uncertainly while giving a look to the other two girls. “Ath-ur-bee. Atherby. Ath-ur-bee. What’s wrong with that?”

“The last part,” he replied patiently. “It wasn’t supposed to be Athur-bee. Look at how it’s spelled.”

“By.” I tilted my head thoughtfully then. “Ather-by? So it’s pronounced the same way it’s spelled.”

“The name of the clan has been deliberately altered over the years,” he explained. “No pun intended. “Mostly to draw less attention. But it was only altered a little bit. Specifically, a single additional R sound was removed from its original place directly following the A.”

“Arther-by?” Shiori immediately put in before her eyes widened and she made an adorable squeaking noise. “You mean Arthur, as in ‘founded by Arthur?’ Like, like, Arthur-Arthur?”

Chuckling both at Shiori’s voice and the double-takes that Avalon and I did, Gabriel gestured. “More like, ‘founded by those who were by Arthur. By, in this case, meaning beside. As in–”

“Knights of the Round Table.” Avalon was openly staring at the man (not that she’d ever stopped staring at him). “You’re saying this clan is the descendants of the Knights of the Round Table.”

I was still choking on that particular realization while Gabriel calmly corrected, “Some of them, not all. A few of the knights, after Arthur’s… death, created what you now know as this clan.”  

“Who–what–ah–” I was still openly floundering, trying to dredge the right words up out of my completely locked-up mind. “What knights? I mean who was–I mean who am I–I mean…”

“Who are you related to?” Gabriel smiled faintly. “We don’t know. When the knights created this clan, they cast aside their old names. It was their way of honoring their liege, by letting their old identities be buried along with him. Their leader took the name Arthur-by. Over time, that became Artherby with the e, and eventually Atherby. Finally, it turned to the way you pronounce it.”  

“Knights of the Round Table.” I spoke the words, still unable to believe that they were coming out of my mouth. “My family–my mother’s family–is related to–is… they’re descended from one of… oh.” Swallowing, I swayed a little bit in spite of myself. “I think I need to sit down for a minute.”

“It’s a lot to take in,” Gabriel agreed, his voice as calm as ever. “That’s why I waited until you asked. I didn’t want to overwhelm you with your family’s history.” He paused then before amending, “More of your family’s history, rather. It’s also why Crossroads was so eager to take your mother in, and why they forgave a lot of her earlier, less obvious transgressions. They were obviously hoping that the rest of the remaining Atherby clan would fold into their organization.”

I’d taken in a lot of revelations over the past few months. Enough to the point that I’d thought I was immunized to any more surprises. But somehow, finding out that my family on my mother’s side was related to at least one of the literal Knights of the Round Table was still enough to leave me speechless. My mouth continued to open and shut a few times as I fought to find any words.

In the end, it was Avalon who spoke up before I managed to get my brain working again. “Wait,” she started with a frown. “One of Arthur’s knights is already a member of the Committee.”

“There is?” I blurted, looking that way while wracking my brain for a second. “Who–wait. You mean that Percival guy?” I thought back to what I remembered of the man. He’d been the one with the blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, and the Nirvana tee-shirt. Not exactly the kind of appearance I would’ve expected from one of the legendary Knights of The Round Table.

On the other hand, I also never would’ve expected to find Virginia Dare teaching at my school, or Blackbeard working as one of the society’s leaders. So maybe my expectation of what historical figures would be like should just be quiet and stop making assumptions before I ended up finding out that George Washington was actually a shrunken Meregan or something even more absurd.

Gabriel was already nodding. “Yes,” he replied, “the Percival on the Crossroads Committee is the same man who was known as one of King Arthur’s knights. Obviously, he wasn’t one of the few who split off to create this clan. As for how he actually feels about it… you’d have to ask him.”   

It was a good question. What did Percival think about the fact that my mom and I (not to mention Wyatt, Abigail, and Koren) were descended from at least one of his old comrades in arms?

“I don’t…” My mouth shut as I tried to think. Eventually, the only thing I could say was, “You’re telling me that Arthur was a Heretic?” The words sounded weak even to me.

“All of them were,” he confirmed. “Arthur the most powerful of all. One of the most powerful natural Heretics who ever lived, if the myths are true. Until he was betrayed and murdered.”

“Myths… most powerful Heretic who–” I blinked, looking back over at him. “You said he was a natural Heretic. But what was he a natural Heretic of that made him so powerful?”

Gabriel smiled at the question, clearly expecting it. “According to the clan legend? A dragon.”

For a moment, I just stared, my mouth opening and shutting before dumbly repeating, “A dragon.”

His head bowed in a nod. “That’s what they say. You know the old ‘pulling the sword from the stone’ routine? Actually, it was pulling a tooth from a dragon. According to the Atherby clan legends, Arthur’s village was attacked by a dragon. Arthur tried to fight it, and was… well, almost killed. He was speared in the dragon’s mouth and almost swallowed. But Arthur managed to catch hold of the tooth and rip it out. The dragon spat him out in a rage, and he hit the ground. The blood from when he tore the tooth free mixed with his blood and… well, the rest of history. Or myth.” He shrugged. “The tooth was forged into the blade of Arthur’s weapon, Excalibur.”

“Wait a second,” Shiori blurted quickly. Her eyes were wide as she looked back and forth between all of us. “You mean we have Avalon, the island that Arthur was taken to… and a descendant of one of Arthur’s knights, and they’re… you’re, you know…”  She waggled her eyebrows pointedly.

Flushing at her words, I opened my mouth, but Avalon beat me to the punch. “She knew.” When I looked that way, her face was just as pink as mine felt. “Gaia,” she muttered. “She knew exactly what she was doing. As soon as we settled on my–on the name, she said she had the perfect roommate in mind. She was even smiling at the time. She knew exactly what she was doing.”

Well, that was enough to make my face grow even redder. Before I could say anything about it, however, the phone in my pocket buzzed. It was the secure phone, the one that was protected from any kind of surveillance measures by Crossroads. Digging it out, I glanced at the number before answering with a glance to the others. “Seth? Sorry, can I call you back a bit later?”

“You could,” the vampire drawled lazily, “if you’d like to miss your last chance to talk to Fahsteth.”

Shiori’s head was already whipping around, the girl obviously having heard that as I blurted, “Wait what?” Glancing to the others, I added, “What do you mean, last chance to talk to Fahsteth?”

“Just what I said,” Seth replied. “Turns out, your favorite shark merc’s leaving the planet after tonight. And he doesn’t plan on coming back anytime soon. Something about a bunch of powerful people that want him dead. You wanna talk to him at all, it’s gotta be in the next hour or two. And by hour or two,” he added, “I mean every minute that passes makes it more likely that he’ll just decide to cut and run anyway. I threw out a lot of favors to even find out this much. Believe me, you wait too long and he’ll be gone. And like I said, once he leaves, he ain’t coming back.”

“I–hold on.” Hitting the button to mute the phone, I looked to the others. “He says that Fahsteth’s leaving after tonight, in an hour or two at the latest. If we don’t go talk to him now, we won’t be able to before he’s gone for good.” Yeah, considering Gabriel obviously had at least as good of hearing as Shiori did, the only person I was actually giving this news to was Avalon. But still.  

“It’s not… terrible timing,” Shiori pointed out. “I mean, there’s no chance that whoever the Seosten spy is would know about it. We’re not at Crossroads, and everyone else is asleep right now.”

“She’s right,” Avalon agreed with a slight nod. “It was an accident, but this is a good time for it. We still have at least two hours before anyone would actually miss us. Longer if Gaia covers.”

“If you want to go see this Fahsteth,” Gabriel put in then, “I can arrange for transport. And you won’t be going in alone either. Not with that mercenary. He’s too dangerous.”

“We’ll have Seth with us, and anyone he brought,” I pointed out. “But any help you want to add would be good too. As long as we get Fahsteth to talk about what he knows. That’s what matters.”

Avalon nodded. “He’s the closest thing to a real lead we’ve ever had. Whoever the Seosten and their allies are, Fahsteth was working with them at least since I was a little girl. Probably longer. And now that they’re trying to kill him, he might be willing to talk about it.”

“Right.” I bit my lip. “So we get to Fahsteth, we convince him to talk to us… one way or another, and then–”

As I was talking, my phone buzzed again. Thinking it was Seth trying to get my attention, I glanced down, only to see that I had a second call incoming. This one was from Asenath. “Hold on.” Answering it, I started, “Senny, hey. Did you hear about–”

“Hi, Felicity.”

The voice made my heart practically stop. Not because the voice itself was all that surprising. I’d heard it my entire life, after all. No, what was surprising was hearing the voice coming through a phone that the owner of the voice shouldn’t have had the number to, using a phone belonging to someone that he shouldn’t have been able to get it from.

“… Dad?” I managed, once I’d managed to get far enough past my shock to actually speak.

I definitely had everyone else’s attention by that point, as my father replied, “Yeah. Asenath said that it’d be safer to call that phone, that we wouldn’t be… overheard. Is it safe on your end?”

“Is it safe on my–” I started to echo before shaking my head almost violently. “What are you talking about? What–I mean–how did–I–what?”

“I know, baby.” My father’s voice went silent for a moment before he continued. “I know all of it. Well, no, not all of it. But enough.”

“What do you mean you–”

“She’s a vampire,” my father cut me off. “Asenath. She’s a vampire. And you–your mother, Fossor, the Heretics, I know enough. I know what’s been going on. I worked out some of it, and your friends here have been filling me in on the rest. It’s… really… something.”

After what was probably a long moment of silence, he proved he really did know me by prompting, “Flick, sweetie, you have to breathe.” A pause, then, “Actually, do you still have to breathe? For all I know, you’ve gotten some kind of–”

“How?” I blurted then. “How do you–the Bystander Effect, you can’t be–you can’t remember, you can’t–” Then my eyes widened. “Did Asenath–”  

“I’m not a vampire, no.” There was a chuckle, weak as it was, in my father’s voice. “As for how, I guess we both have a lot to tell each other. But the most important thing is that we’re not home. Those… werewolves–” He paused, as though he couldn’t believe he was actually calling them that. “–the ones that are… upset with you, they came to the house.”

“What?! The werewolves were, but–”

“It’s all right,” he assured me. “We’re fine. One of those–well, we should talk about it in person. That and everything else. Asenath told me you’d be awake, because you… listen, I’m told that if you talk to that headmistress of yours, she can arrange for you to come to where we are. I… we need to talk, Felicity. We need to talk about everything.”

My head was already nodding. “Y-yeah, yeah, I…” I was reeling, trying to cope with the sudden revelation. My father had broken the Bystander Effect? How!? How was he remembering all this? Did it have to do with the werewolves? Did they–did– I had to talk to him. I had to find out what the hell was–

“I can’t.” The words came as an abrupt realization. “I can’t come right now.”

There was a brief pause before my father asked, “What… what do you mean?”

Oh god. The sound of his voice, the idea of actually talking to my dad about everything that had happened, the thought of opening up about Mom, about all of it… and yet…

“I can’t–listen, Dad. God. I wanna talk to you. I swear. I swear I will, as soon as I can. But there’s this… this guy, this guy we have to talk to. It’s important. It’s really, really important, and if we don’t talk to him right now, we won’t get the chance again. It’s life and death, Dad.”

Silence came through the phone for a few seconds. Seconds that seemed to last forever. Finally, my father spoke quietly. “Felicity, I want to tell you something… important, okay?”

Swallowing, I held the phone tightly. “Y-yes.”

“I love you.” His voice was soft. “I know why you lied. I know why you didn’t tell me. I don’t blame you. You are the most important person in the world to me. Always. Forever. I trust you. If you say that you have to do this, I believe you. But promise me that you’re going to be careful. Promise me that you have help. Promise me that you’re… safe.”

My eyes closed. “If you know almost everything,” I replied, “then you know that I haven’t been completely safe in a really long time.” I swallowed then. “But yeah. I’m being careful. This isn’t about… about us. It’s a long story, but one of my teachers was killed. He was murdered. And we have to talk to someone who can tell us what happened. It’s our only chance.”

“I’d ask if you have to be the one who does it,” my father spoke quietly, “but I already know the answer.”

Giving a little involuntary shudder, I managed, “Wh-what about you? You’re safe?”

“Safe enough, with my two bodyguards,” he replied. “Don’t worry about me. We’ll talk, as soon as you’re done with… with what you’re doing, okay?”

“I love you, Dad.” I had to say it. “I’m sorry I couldn’t… I’m sorry.”

“I know.” His voice was as tender as ever. “Sweetie, I know. I understand. Trust me, after what I went through to get past that stupid–I get it. We do have to talk, about everything. But I’m not mad at you, okay? I am not angry with you.”

There were tears in my eyes, and I blinked them away. “I… I’ve gotta go, Dad. I’ve gotta focus. But I’ll talk to you soon. As soon as I can, once it’s done. I promise. I swear.”

“I know you will. I’ll hold you to it.” Dad’s voice was quiet then. “Be careful, Felicity. Please, please be careful.”

“I will. I..” Swallowing, I added one more, “I love you. B-bye.”

Clicking the disconnect for that call, I gave the others one more look before shoring myself up. Taking a deep breath, I hit the button to switch over to the other call. Somehow, when I spoke, I managed to stop my voice from cracking almost entirely.

“S-Seth? Yeah. We’ll be there. Just make sure Fahsteth doesn’t leave.

“Because he’s got a lot to answer for.”

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The Third Degree 21-05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… in more than one way.”

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The Third Degree 21-03

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Two days after finding out a bit more about just how far the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden rivalry went, I was sitting out on the beach a decent distance away from the school with my feet in the water. The sun was setting over the horizon, sending a beautiful array of colors across the ocean’s surface that took my breath away and left me staring in awe for a few seconds whenever I looked up. Even after living on the island for several months, I still couldn’t get over just how gorgeous the scenery could be sometimes.

For a moment, I wondered what my mom had thought of the place when she’d stayed here. Had it been this beautiful to her? When she… left, when she started her rebellion, did she miss these sights? How many times had she sat out here on this same beach–maybe even this same spot, and watched the ocean? The buildings might change, be upgraded, have the furniture moved around, and whatever, but the beach didn’t. Okay, yeah, technically the sand would be all different from being washed in and out. But the point was that this was the same beach she would have stood on. The ocean was the same ocean she would have looked at and swum in. The… this was my mother’s school. Sometimes it just hit me that way, out of nowhere and for no well-explained reason: this was my mother’s school. This had been her home for… for so long. This was a connection to her that I had never known about.

In the present, we were separated by distance, but not time. In the past, we were separated by time, but not distance. Sitting here, looking at the water, I could almost feel my mother sitting in the same place. I could close my eyes and imagine her beside me. Younger than I knew her, but there. I could almost feel her presence, my hand curling through the sand with the half-expectation of finding hers. Just a little more, my fingers slid out slowly. I could feel her. Almost. Almost.

I found empty sand. And as my eyes opened, I had to blink a few times to clear away the wetness.

I wasn’t stupid or crazy. Well, okay, sometimes I could be both. But in this case, I’d known she wasn’t there, obviously. It was just… a nice daydream sometimes. Honestly, what were daydreams other than hope? And if I gave up on hope, well… then I might as well give up on life.

Some might have said that imagining myself sitting next to my mother-as-a-student while the two of us  were separated by around a hundred years was childish. But if it was, I didn’t care. I’d rather be childish than ever really give up on those kind of dreams, that kind of hope.

Shaking those feelings off for the moment, however, I returned my attention to the thing that I was actually working on. The block of wood in my lap was covered in runes. I had spent about half an hour carefully drawing the runes while repeatedly checking each against the book beside me. After that, I’d spent at least another twenty minutes gradually investing power in the thing.

So almost an hour to get this far. Obviously, the theriangelos spell, the one that my mother had used to send that monkey to me and that Gaia had been teaching me, wasn’t meant to be done quickly. The headmistress said I’d get faster with it over time. But even then, like most spells that Heretics used, it was never going to be very fast. The best thing to do would be to do several ahead of time, get them almost done, then carry them around and add the last bit when I actually wanted to use the spell. Which was apparently what most Heretics did with spells they liked.

And hey, at least I’d figured out the best way to gradually invest power in the spell over an extended period so that when I actually cast the spell for real, it only took a little bit to finish.

After checking over the finished product fully for the fifth time, just to make absolutely sure that I hadn’t messed anything up, I was finally satisfied. Turning the page in my notebook to the actual spell,  I took a breath before beginning to recite it. I’d gotten better at the pronunciation and speaking quickly without stumbling over the words (mostly from repeated practice without actually using it on a completed block), but it still took a good forty seconds to say the whole thing even with everything else done. I couldn’t even imagine how many attempts it would take to do that in the middle of an actual stressful situation instead of on a calm beach without any distractions.   

Eventually, I finished without messing anything up. As the last word left my mouth, I felt the spell take the last bit of power that I needed from me. Even with as much as I had primed the spell throughout the past half-hour, I still felt little bit dizzy for just a second before my head cleared.

The wood was already floating off my lap, creating a bright red and gold glow that filled the air. As the glow faded, I could see my newly-created fox sitting there in the sand, looking at me.

And just like the other times that I’d cast the spell (always in Gaia’s presence), I also saw myself through the fox’s eyes. And smelled myself through its nose, along with the nearby ocean. Not to mention how much I could hear. Wow. Doing this outside was a lot different from being inside Gaia’s office. The fox could hear, smell, and see so much that I couldn’t even come close to noticing. The sound of the ocean waves, the smell of the plants and animals in the jungle behind me, even the noise that some of the other students who so far down the beach that they were barely visible were making. Through the fox’s senses, I could pick up all of it and a lot more.

Closing my eyes, I focused on shutting out the input from my own body and on experiencing things through the fox. For a few long seconds, I didn’t make her move or do anything but sit there. I was still just letting myself grow accustomed to everything I could sense out here.

I’d done it. Oh god, I’d actually done it. I’d pulled it off. Yes, it’d taken what was probably over an hour by that point, but I’d actually managed to cast the theriangelos spell without messing up, and without Gaia standing right behind me, supplying her power and watching over the whole thing.

Once I was relatively sure that I’d gotten accustomed enough to experiencing the fox’s senses, I focused on starting to move. First, I made her move from a sitting position to standing on all four feet. Telling myself it was just like when I’d made the fox run around Gaia’s office, I got her to walk around me. The feel of the sand against her paws with each step was just as distracting as all of her other senses, and I found myself lifting one paw, letting the sand run through it, then lifting the other. God, it was just… it was amazing. Ridiculously amazing. I’d used magic to create a fox that I was now controlling. How–just–how could I ever get used to that kind of thing? Honestly, I hoped I didn’t. The wonder that I felt in that moment, as I looked through my fox’s eyes to see the sand running through her raised paw to fall back to the ground, I wanted to feel forever.

Eventually, I managed to focus and started walking the fox around my body. Gradually moving it up into a trot, I got her to run in circles around me, kicking up a small cloud of sand in the process. The wet sand under her paws, the water itself as the waves rose, the wind on her snout as she ran faster, they were all more sensations to get accustomed to while being outside like this.

After letting myself get accustomed to that,  I sent the fox away from me a short distance off the beach and into the jungle. Not far, just enough that we weren’t right next to each other, and so that I could practice depending on her senses in an area that I wasn’t actually in. I wanted to get used to experiencing things purely through the fox without my own body’s normal input.  

It took a bit, since it was a lot like trying to pay attention to one television show while a different one was playing in the same room. But keeping my body’s eyes closed helped. Then it was more like watching one television show while a radio played in the background. Still distracting, but better. And from what Gaia had said, there were some Heretics who actually gained the right powers to be able to control their own animal while simultaneously engaging in actions of their own. Sitting there like that, with my eyes closed tight so that I could focus on what the fox was seeing, I couldn’t even imagine being able to do that. But then, it hadn’t been that long ago that I wouldn’t have been able to imagine using magic to create a fox out of wood to begin with.

I probably would have kept playing around with the fox in the jungle for a lot longer,  but I was interrupted by the sound of a phone ringing. I was so disoriented in that moment that I can’t understand why a phone was ringing in the middle of the jungle. It took me a few seconds, and a couple more rings, to realize that I was hearing the phone in my own pocket, back with my body

Shaking off the disorienting feeling, I opened my own eyes while shutting the fox’s so that I could focus. Digging for the phone, I found that it was actually the other one. It was the private phone, the one that didn’t show up on the Crossroads security logs or in their recordings.

After checking the number, I tapped the button to answer the call. “Seth?”

“Well hey there, my second-favorite Heretic,” his voice drawled casually. “Sorry, you’re right up there, but I kinda gotta give first favorite to the little half-sis. You know how it is with family.”  

“It’s fine,” I assured him, not wanting to get into all that. “Did you get the meeting set up?”

There was a brief pause before he asked, “You sure we can talk about it just like that? From what I hear, that school of yours isn’t exactly super-trusting. I might not be the only Big Brother around.”

“Like I said,” I assured the older vampire, “they can’t hear anything that goes through this phone. It bypasses Crossroads security. We’re good. So like I said, did you get the meeting set up?”

“Hey, it’s me.” His voice was a mixture of smug and teasing. He worked the very edge of the line between confident and arrogant, like he knew just how far to push. “I said I’d get the meeting set up, and now it’s done. You got a piece of paper to write down the nitty-gritty details?”

“Yeah, hang on.” Picking up my notebook with the spell written in it, I flipped to a blank page and set it back on the sand before taking the pencil. “Okay, go ahead.”

“Meeting’s set for three weeks from now,” Seth began. “Yeah, yeah, I know. You wanted it to be sooner, but he’s a busy man. Well, not a man, but you know what I mean. He’s busy. That was the earliest time I could make him agree to, without raising his suspicions. And I doubt you want his suspicions raised. So three weeks. That’s Friday, February ninth at six p.m. He was trying to push for the morning, but I figured that’d interfere with your schooling. And we do want you to grow up to be a great little Heretic, now don’t we? Gotta get that learning in. So six p.m. it is.”   

“February ninth, six p.m., I got it.” Writing that down, I asked, “Where’re we meeting this guy?”

“Sudsy’s,” the response came. “It’s an old motel in Ashland, Oregon. Little town right off I-5 about fifteen miles north of the California border. It’s a great little place to visit. They’ve got this Shakespeare Festival you should check out. It should be starting about the time you get over there. First time I went was in 1947. That was the first year they had it since the second world war. And let me tell you, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Honestly. And that’s saying a lot.”

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “Are you moonlighting as a tourism director now, Mr. Tiebreaker?”

There was amusement in his voice. “Hey, gotta pay the bills somehow, don’t I? Don’t always have super-special Heretics-in-training offering thirty thousand dollars to set up meetings with nasty shark-mercs. Anyway, Ashland, Oregon. Sudsy’s. Six p.m. February Ninth. Got all that?”  

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “I got it. Thanks, Seth. You’re a lifesaver. There was no way someone like Fahsteth was gonna agree to a meeting with a Heretic, and Senny says she and Twister have the kind of reputation that he stays away from. So like I said, thanks. We’ll get the money to you. ”

Pausing then, I bit my lip before asking, “Have you heard anything from Namythiet or Roxa yet?” I was pretty sure that we would’ve heard from the latter long before he did, but still. I was nervous about how long it was taking, and wanted to know what was going on out there. And I really, really wanted to be sure that they weren’t underestimating Pace and her pack. If anything happened to Mateo, Roxa, or…well, any of them, I didn’t know if I’d be able to forgive myself for sending them.

“Sorry, kid,” Seth replied. “Nothing to report. I mean, the plucky pixie’s checked in, sure. But I’m pretty sure I don’t have any news that they didn’t already tell you. They’re still out there looking.”

Sighing in spite of myself, I nodded. “Thanks anyway. And like I said, thanks for setting that up.”

His voice was smooth. “No problem. I mean, just enough of a problem to warrant that cash you promised, but no more than that. Unless you’ve got some kind of bonus in mind if it was just a–”

“Bye, Seth.” Shaking my head, I disconnected the call before picking myself up. Staring down at the notebook with the date and place of the meeting with Fahsteth, I started to wander back up the beach toward the school.

Before I reached the school however, I remembered the whole reason that I’d been out there. The reason that I could still sort-of half feel the dirt and leaves beneath my feet even though I was walking on sand. Right, the fox. I’d left her sitting there with her eyes closed and had been working to tune out everything from her throughout that call to the point that I had briefly forgotten about her.

Focusing briefly, I opened the fox’s eyes and looked around. It was almost tempting to just dismiss the spell. But honestly, I had worked on it for too long. I kind of wanted to bring her back so I could at least keep the wood, even if I had to redo the whole spell all over again. I… felt connected to it.

Not as connected as I was to the trusty rock in my pocket, of course. No piece of wood could replace Herbie. But still, leaving the fox out there in the jungle to just disappear when the spell faded felt wrong. So I kept control of it, guiding the fox back through the trees to the beach. Then I’d just run her up the beach straight to where I was waiting.

Or at least, that was the plan. But when the fox was just passing the last tree before hitting sand, she… I, rather, saw a figure straight ahead. A figure right where I had just been sitting.

Making the fox freeze and crouch down a bit,  I stared at the figure. It was dark enough by that point that I wouldn’t even have been able to see them at all from that distance with my own eyes, or hear them with my own ears. But I wasn’t using my eyes or ears. The fox could see just and hear much better than I could.

It was a woman. I couldn’t make out any real details, but I could tell that much. She had dark skin and short hair that was pale enough to be white. She definitely wasn’t a teacher. I may not have known all the upper-grade instructors that well, but I did know enough that I would’ve recognized her. I’d never seen her before in my life.

“Fahsteth,” the unfamiliar woman muttered. Her voice was distorted, like I was hearing things while my head was underwater. Either I wasn’t used to using the fox’s hearing yet and that was throwing me off,  or she was distorting her voice somehow, magically muffling it in a way that the fox could mostly hear through. Whatever it was, I could barely make out what she was saying.

“She has a meeting with Fahsteth. Find him. No, I don’t care how upset he is. I know he said he wouldn’t take any more calls. I’m not asking you to hire him. I’m telling you to track him down. Make sure he can’t tell them anything. Shut his mouth. Permanently if you need to. Just do it. He’s a lead they can’t be allowed to have.”

She was moving, walking away from where I had been sitting and back toward the school, the same way I had gone. “Find him and kill him, before I have to do something drastic to slow this human bitch down. No more excuses, just get it done. Or you can explain your failure to Manakel.

“That’s what I thought. Deal with him. I have to get back to the body before anyone finds it. No, this doesn’t mean she suspects anything. She didn’t tell anyone about it. Probably to stop them from talking her out of it.  I promise you, the Chambers child trusts me. And so do her little girlfriends. Well, not me.

“But they certainly trust my host.”

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