Shiloh Lexx

Exodus 44-07

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To say that chaos erupted in that moment would have been doing it a disservice. Everyone. Everyone knew the truth now. Those who were old enough to have been there remembered the rebellion. They remembered which side they were on, and the choices they had made. They remembered the choices their loved ones had made, good and bad. They remembered it all.

Those who weren’t old enough to have been there knew the basics. They knew about my mother, what she had done. And they knew what Ruthers had done to end the war. They knew about Abigail and Wyatt, though I had kept their current identities secret, leaving only the knowledge of what had happened to them as children. Gaia and I had both figured they would want it that way, especially Wyatt. There was no need to expose them that much.

The point was, people knew the truth. And there were immediate effects. A nearly deafening level of noise burst forth from the crowd that had followed to see what was going on, as well as the hybrids and their friends that were already with us. I saw students shouting at each other, along with teachers. Several of the latter were physically reeling. One teacher turned and literally punched another hard in the face. A few of the students, including Rebecca Jameson, ran to join our group. Others tried but were stopped or slowed by teammates or faculty members. Then a couple of those teachers gave up and actually ran to join us. Professor Carfried was one of them, giving me a brief look of sympathy as he passed.

It was a dam that was breaking apart, and the leaks were people abandoning Crossroads. Not the majority. Most stayed, even if they looked confused, lost, and even disgusted. But enough came. Dozens more than had already been with us. Dozens who saw what Ruthers had done, who saw how the rebellion had been put down, and were disgusted enough to abandon what they knew.  

Nearby, Deveron was staring at me. His mouth was open, words failing him in lieu of a simple noise of flat astonishment and disbelief. Finally, he settled on a weak, “You did this… you… you erased the eraser. You made them remember Jos, you made them remember all of it.”

I nodded slowly, but most of my attention was on the Committee members. And more importantly, on Gaia. She had slumped as soon as the spell was cast. I knew it would take a lot out of her, even after preparing for it for months, at least. But it was enough that she literally swayed for a handful of seconds before passing out. Her unconscious form would have fallen, but Geta and Jue both caught her.

“Mom!” Avalon blurted again. She took another step that way before anyone could stop her. But Geta and Jue both looked to us, then to each other and the chaos around them before abruptly disappearing. They vanished, taking the unconscious Gaia with them.

Ruthers and Litonya, meanwhile, were first focused on trying to get to me. For some reason, they seemed a little upset. They each conjured these large ghostly hands that rose from the ground and tried to grab me. But Prosser was there. He conjured a shield with a raised hand, making the ghostly constructs bounce off as they lashed out for me. Ruthers followed up with a scream of anger as he hurled a literal ball of fire at the shield as though he had lost his mind.

“No, no! Mom!” Avalon squirmed free of Shiori, who had caught hold of her again, and made to dash around the shield.

Dare was there. The blonde woman… my grandmother… took Avalon by the arm with a firm, yet gentle grip. “We’ll get her back,” she promised. “We will. We’ll get her back, Avalon. But we have to go. We have to get out of here now, while we still can.” As she spoke, the woman gave Harper… or Lancelot, or whoever a brief, confused look. Probably because Harper was, at that particular moment, reinforcing Prosser’s shield against the combined power of Ruthers and Litonya.

“Avalon, she’s right!” I blurted, gesturing to where Nevada was already ushering the hybrid students, their friends, and the others who had just started to join us off the school grounds and to the beach. “We have to get out of here! They’ll call in more of the Committee, more reinforcements. We’ll come back for Gaia, for Sean, for anyone else, but right now we have to go!” Even as I spoke, my hand grabbed the hunga munga off the ground and I shoved it into a bag on my belt. I definitely wasn’t leaving that behind.

Reluctantly, Avalon nodded. She looked over to the others, hesitating before speaking up. “Right, we’ll come back. We’ll find her.” She seemed to be talking mostly to herself, shaking off her indecision. With another nod, she and Shiori supported me and we ran for the beach. Deveron took one last look back that way, clearly torn on what to do before he followed.

Dare was right behind us as well, along with Hisao. The two of them were doing something to fend off the stray attacks that got around the main shield that Prosser and Harper were maintaining. Every once in awhile, a laser, a bit of fire, an icicle, something would make its way toward us, and Dare, Deveron, or Hisao would block it. Without the three of them, I didn’t think we would have made it even with Harper and Prosser taking care of the bulk of the damage. There was so much fire and other attacks being thrown around, it felt like storming the beach at Normandy, except in reverse. We were running toward the water.

Everything was noise. Pandemonium the likes of which I had never seen or even imagined reigned. People were fighting in little pockets. Those who were working on running to the boat kept being delayed by random attacks from all sides. There were Crossroads people fighting other Crossroads people. Some were just trying to make everyone stop leaving, while others were picking up on fights that had been paused for years when the rebellion was erased from their memories. I saw teachers fighting each other, various adult Heretics brought in to try to control things, even people whose reason for being there I didn’t know. They just appeared. It was like having the rebellion brought back into their memories called them from wherever they were.

I saw Larees help a couple students get past one of the Crossroads security guys. But it was close. Even as the students ran onward, the guy nearly killed Larees with a swipe from his electricity-covered sword. But at the last instant, Misty caught him by the arm. She yanked the man up, hurling him a good forty feet away.

It was that way everywhere. Everywhere. I saw Sariel nail four different guys with four arrows all fired at the same time. I saw Athena appear through one of the portals that her knife created just in time to stab Excalibur through one of the fourth-year teachers, who was holding a handful of students pinned to the ground with some kind of summoned metal claw thing. Athena then cut through the claw to free the students, helping them up.

Everywhere was chaos, fire, blood, screaming. It was an all-out battle, the likes of which I had never seen.

And if it was this bad here, how bad was it in other places? What was it like in Eden’s Garden? What about Heretics who were out on patrols together with people they previously fought against? Would they get over it and deal with any real threats first?

What about the people who had originally sided with the Rebellion, and now had to deal with the memory of spending a couple decades fighting and killing the Alters that they had previously known were innocent?

Reaching the beach where everyone else had run, I saw the boat that had been mentioned. It was a large yacht set out a bit in the ocean, with a glowing energy bridge leading out to it. Around the bridge were several unconscious bodies of Crossroad people, and Kohaku stood at the base of the bridge, along with Larissa and Seller. Seller was there too.

That, seeing him, actually was enough to kick Avalon into full gear. She moved faster, and Shiori and I compensated to keep up. Seller met us partway, nodding as Avalon started to tell him what had happened to Gaia. “Don’t you worry, kid,” he assured her, “Gaia’s tough. She’ll last until we pull her out of whatever hole they drop her in. Right now, let’s get while the getting’s possible.”

Other students and teachers were already making their way over the bridge and onto the yacht. It was large enough to hold a couple hundred people, so it would be able to take us with no problem. At least, assuming one of the Committee or their people didn’t sink it.

Right, should probably get on the boat instead of daydreaming about ways it could fail.

“Guys, are we going?!” That was Jazz. She was there, skidding to a stop with Jokai, who looked as though he was hyperventilating from the terror of being where he was. Jazz waved at us impatiently. “Going’s good!”

“Going’s good,” I agreed. With a quick look over to where Haiden and Sariel were working with Vanessa and Tristan to help students onto the bridge, we started that way once more. Seller came with, slowing just enough to unceremoniously kick one of the Committee’s security guys in the face when the man started to get up, putting him back down.

Just ahead of us, Aylen was clambering up onto the bridge with a little help from Haiden. A few yards away, there was a blur of motion as something–or someone– blindingly fast came from the side.

The blur was stopped just as suddenly as Nevada suddenly appeared, swinging an oversized metal bat with both hands. The bat caught the blur, and I saw another uniformed Committee goon double over, his speed turned into a liability as he collided with the weapon. With a pained groan, the man slumped to the ground. His voice was dark, cracking a bit as he managed a weak, “Tr-traitors…”

In response, Nevada pointed the end of the bat at him. “You know what they say,” she replied easily, “one man’s traitor is another man’s person who thinks for themselves and doesn’t wholesale slaughter dozens of species just because they’re not human and a bunch of racist pricks said they were evil.”

A bright smile came then. “I mean, I’m sure someone has said those words in that order at some point. It’s a big universe.”

With that, she hit a button on the bat. The end opened, and some kind of mostly-invisible force shot out of it to collide with the man. He flew back a dozen feet before going down. That time, he stayed there.

Flick, go! Tabbris blurted in my head, snapping me out of staring at that. Shaking it off, I moved with Shiori and Avalon. We were at the bridge then, and Haiden helped me up onto it. Now that I was close enough, I could see where there had been stairs at one point. Apparently something had happened to them, hence the need for help to get up onto it.

Either way, the others quickly joined me. We retreated along the bridge, heading for the yacht where most of those who had chosen to escape the island were already waiting. I saw them, peering off the edge of the boat, either watching us (me in particular) or staring at the light show in the distance as Prosser and Harper kept the two Committee members busy.

There was so much fighting going on back there, or in spots around the beach. But most of it I couldn’t follow. It was the adults, the grown Heretics. They were keeping any pursuers busy so that the students who wanted to could all get on the yacht. I even saw Professor Carfried still on the beach. Glancing that way, I saw him use some kind of spell to turn a stone into a weird pink gas, which enveloped two different Crossroads people. They collapsed, but not before one of them shot him several times.

Of course, for a grown Heretic, being shot a bit generally wasn’t the end. It did, however, make the man stumble. He started to collapse to one knee, but Larissa was there. She helped him up and started pulling the man back to the bridge. Yet another Crossroads goon tried to take advantage of that, but was caught by Kohaku, who cleared a path for them.

Halfway across the bridge, something suddenly flew down out of nowhere and crashed into me. I heard the others shout my name, before I hit the water.

It was another Heretic, a grown man. I didn’t recognize him, but even as we came up out of the water, his fist crashed into my face.

“Bitch!” the man was screaming. “You fucking bitch!” Then he hit me again, and my head rocked backward as I fell back under the water. He was shouting something about me ruining everything, about me tearing his wife away from him. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t focus. He hit me a third time, all in rapid succession. Faintly, I saw some kind of forcefield behind us that he’d put up to keep the people on the bridge from helping.

His fist drew back to hit me again, before the man suddenly stopped, turning a bit with a look of confusion. His other hand released my shirt, and I started to sink before something caught me from below.

It was Sherman, my Bull shark. He came up from beneath me, rising until I was sitting on the surface of the water on his back. Sherman himself seemed to stare up at the guy who had hit me.

From behind the man, I could see where the others were standing. They’d fallen silent and were just watching.

“You look here, you little cunt,” the man snarled. “If you think your little pet shark is going to stop me from beating you into a fucking–”

“You’re wrong,” I interrupted. “I don’t have a pet shark.”

The man’s mouth opened as he looked straight at Sherman, but I finished before he could speak.

“I have a fleet of pet sharks.”

Brody hit him first. Coming up from below, the Mako shark bit the man’s leg, yanking him partway underwater. Just as the man started to lash out, Brody’s twin, Quint, hit him from the back, slamming into the man and biting into his shoulder.

He spun in the water, throwing himself back with some kind of power to escape them. Which was when Jabberjaw, my pretty blue and white shark, hit him right in the back, catching the man in his mouth and dragging him several feet before the guy managed to extricate himself.

Then it was Simpson’s turn. The eleven-foot long Lemon shark slammed into the man at full speed and kept going. She hit the guy so hard, so fast, that they were a good dozen feet away before he knew what happened. Even as he summoned a metal dagger and tried to stab her, she was already slipping away.

Floating out there in the water, the man gave a furious snarl. He floated up out of the ocean, hovering there about six feet up while pointing at me. “You! You stupid, pathetic, lying little–”

And that was as far as he got. Because I had one more shark left in my shiver. The one that was too big to come that close to shore, but could reach the area that the rest of the sharks had deliberately dragged or shoved him out to. And sure, the man was floating six feet above the ocean.

But Great Whites can jump.

Princess Cuddles flew out of the ocean at top speed. Her mouth opened, and even as the man continued ranting at me, he was suddenly… gone. With a splash and a spray of blood and… stuff that was worse than blood, my biggest shark went back under the water. Content and full.

“Oh holy mother of Gods,” I managed in a cracked voice, staring in shock at the spot where he had been. I barely noticed as Professor Dare floated down, catching me around the shoulders before pulling me back to the bridge.

“W-wait,” I finally got out, “my sharks!”

“Wyatt’s got it covered,” she promised. “Don’t worry.”

The others seemed just as taken aback as we finally reached the boat. Sands and Scout were already there. They were at the end of the bridge, helping people down onto the deck. They each took one of my hands as we made it there, and I found myself standing on the yacht, moving out of the way so that the others could join us. Retreating. Right now, all that mattered was getting away. We could do a headcount and figure out what to do next once everyone… or everyone who could… got out of there.

Another enemy Heretic, this one in a security uniform, was suddenly on the boat, grabbing my shoulder. Before he could do anything else, Avalon drove her fist into his stomach so hard he stumbled back a step. Then Shiori lashed out with a kick that made him fall back off the boat.

Or… almost off the boat. He was in the middle of falling when Deveron snapped a hand out to catch him by the shirt. “Hi, Jackson,” he started before turning to heave the man one-handed across the entire width of the yacht, off the other side, and out into the water. “Bye, Jackson.”

“So, we all here?” That was Tristan, brushing a bit of weird green ooze off one shoulder as he panted. “Ready to go?”

“Wyatt!” I blurted, turning a bit, “where’s–”

“Here.” My brother stood a little bit away. He had Corporal Kickwhiskers on one shoulder, and was letting the little cat eat a treat out of his hand. He nodded to me, hesitating before offering a simple, “Thanks.”

Dare was on the boat then, smacking her sword against the bridge construct to make it collapse. “Time to go,” she announced. Giving me a very brief look, the woman headed for the front of the yacht, moving through people who were already shouting questions.

Those questions were turned toward me then, everyone asking what was going on, how I’d returned their memories or implanted the story of my mother in their head, and so on. They were all talking at once, dozens of voices, and I didn’t stand a chance of actually answering anyone.

Later!” That was Deveron, projecting his voice over everyone else to the point that a few people were rubbing their ears in pain. It was really loud. The man stared at them, starting to say something else. But before he could, Hisao took over.

“Yes, plenty of time for answers once we are away. I would say focus on keeping the boat clear would be a priority, hmm?”

He was right. There were still Heretics trying to stop us from leaving. A few had come partway out into the water and were doing various things to keep us there. I felt the yacht jerk a little as a couple used telekinetic powers to hold us. Another made semi-solid tentacles rise out of the water to wrap around the yacht. Yet more tried to board the boat, either teleporting up to it, climbing the sides, or sending various attacks up to either hit us or knock someone on the boat off. They had completely lost their minds.

It got worse, not better, as the people on the boat fought back. The whole yacht was being shaken back and forth violently, almost to the point of tearing itself apart. This was bad. What were we supposed to do?

Apparently the answer was ‘wait for Prosser to show up’. Because the man did. Suddenly standing there at the back end of the deck, the man made a single gesture, almost back-handing the air itself. Immediately, everyone who was trying to stop us went flying. They landed on the beach, and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get back up.

“Enough of this!”

It was Geta. He was back from wherever he had taken Gaia with Jue. The large black man appeared right in the middle of the deck. His attention was centered on… well, the other large black man. He stared at Gabriel Prosser. “Did you not already do enough damage by refusing to join our cause? Must you aid in destroying it as well?”

In his left hand, Geta summoned a fuck-off enormous hammer. The head of it was basically the size of my torso. He rested the handle on one shoulder. In his other hand, he held a short sword upside down, or backwards, or whatever.

As everyone else scrambled away from the angry Committee member, Geta continued. “You will not destroy Crossroads. You will not allow innocents to be sacrificed to the monsters that plague this world. You will not drag these people along on your foolish quest to tear apart our civilization!”  

Against the tide of Geta’s blind rage, Gabriel Prosser spoke in a much calmer voice, his words simple. “As yet, you have said nothing that I disagree with, Counselor.”

Fire formed around Geta, blue flames that rose up his body. Lightning crackled throughout it. I saw bits of metal appear, even as tiny dots of purple-blue energy that looked almost like black holes sparked to life around his arms. He was summoning so much power, calling so much to himself, that I could feel a distortion throughout the ship, an indescribable level of energy was all pulled to one place. The air itself was thinner, and I felt myself pulled somewhat toward the former Roman emperor, as if he was a new gravitational body.

Through it all, Gabriel stood there, shovel resting lightly against the deck as he leaned on the handle. He didn’t move. He didn’t summon power of his own to match Geta’s. He did nothing aside from stand there and wait with sphinx-like patience.

When Geta moved, he took all of that power with him. In an instant, he crossed the entire deck, his hammer swinging hard while carrying a nuclear weapon’s-worth of energy within it. Whatever defense Gabriel mounted, he would tear through. Whatever protections he had, Geta had summoned enough power to smash it apart. He swung with the force and power of the sun, his hammer practically exploding through the air like a meteor entering the atmosphere.

And he hit… nothing. Oh, he was right on target. His hammer smashed through the spot where Gabriel was. Or rather, where he appeared to be. When the hammer went through ‘him’, however, the figure blew apart like mist. Gabriel wasn’t actually there. It was an illusion.

The Committee man swung his hammer so hard through that empty air that he came all the way around to face the way he had come, stumbling just a little. And he found himself facing the actual Gabriel Prosser, who now stood just behind him.

Without a word, Prosser swung his shovel with both hands. It connected with Geta, slamming into the man’s face hard enough that the impact sent a shockwave of force in every direction. Geta was sent flying off the yacht, out into the water. And then we were moving. Apparently the Committee Counselor had been holding us still, because as soon as the shovel collided with him, we were suddenly underway.

Harper was beside me then, dusting off her hands. She looked worn, but also exhilarated. “Well, that was pretty fun. I’ve been waiting to do that for awhile.”

“Who are you?” That was one of her teammates, Shiloh. She and the huge Asian boy, Eiji, were the only ones from Harper’s team that I had seen come along. The other three weren’t on the yacht, as far as I could tell.

Before Harper could respond to that, a  student I didn’t know, a friend of one of the hybrids, piped up. “Where are we going? What are we supposed to do now?”

Another nodded. “Crossroads is in a pocket dimension, we can’t go anywhere on a boat!”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Nevada tutted. She came into view, holding some kind of remote. “As if we wouldn’t have a plan for this. Everyone ready? Good, cuz Elvis is leaving the building.” After a very brief pause, she added helpfully, “Elvis is the name of my boat.”

Nevada pressed the button on her remote, and a burst of energy suddenly enveloped the yacht. It grew, along with a sound like breaking glass. Then we were gone from Crossroads.

And I was pretty sure it was going to be a long time before I ever saw it again.

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Before The Vault 41-04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good call, she agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 40B – Dosina Banning

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“Oh God, it wasn’t mud in my hair, it wasn’t mud!”

The yelped words came from Dosina Banning. Having graduated from Crossroads almost six years earlier, the dark-skinned girl had very likely not picked up a weapon since that time. Never having been much focused on or interested in her actual training even while a student, Dosina was good with a certain kind of archival magic, spells focused on sorting and categorizing things. Such magic was quite good for administrative work, but not so much on the front lines of a fight. Which was fine, in most cases. There was very much a place for such work in the offices of the Crossroads Heretical administration. An army wouldn’t be worth much if everyone was a frontline soldier, after all. Dosina might not have been much of a fighter, but her work was still needed and appreciated in the proper place.

Unfortunately, this… was not the proper place. In many ways, actually. Only a minute earlier, Dosina had been having dinner at Crossroads Academy with her little sister, Summer and the rest of Summer’s team. She was one of three adults at the table, along with the boy Eiji’s uncle named Banri, and the father of Shiloh, another of Summer’s teammates. The three adults had been eating with their student relatives, and the other three team members: Russell, Freya, and Harper.

The key word was had. They had been having dinner. A feast, actually. But now… now something had happened. The last thing Dosina knew, a few of the kids around them had been complaining about not feeling well. Then there was a twisting sensation, and she had abruptly found herself… elsewhere. A dark elsewhere. A dark, muddy, and wet elsewhere. It was a swamp of some kind, one filled with nasty smells and creepy, crawly things. Dosina had already kicked a couple of entirely-too-large centipedes off her shoes before looking around. It was too dark to see further than ten feet or so. Those ten feet basically showed her muddy water, spots of land like where she was standing that weren’t exactly dry but at least made the water only rise to her ankles, twisted trees, and shapes that could have been logs or… or worse.

She had just taken a step back from one probably-not-a-log in particular when a glop of what she had thought was mud had fallen into her hair. The discovery that it was, in fact, something worse than mud had prompted her outburst. Now, she shook her hand off desperately, raising her voice. “Hello? Is anyone else out there? I said, hel–”

A hand covered her mouth. Dosina instantly focused on one of her powers. She wasn’t a frontline fighter, but nor was she a Bystander. Her teeth instantly turned to metal and became sharp enough to bite through steel, as she went to chomp down on the hand keeping her silent.

The hand released her at the last second, a hand turning her around. Dosina saw scraggly brown hair, mismatched blue and brown eyes, and a lined face. Then she recognized the man there, his face illuminated by a magical or ability-fueled light floating beside him. Garrison Lexx, Shiloh’s father. He gestured for her to be quiet, then nodded back the way he had apparently come.

Dosina followed him quickly, relieved beyond belief that she wasn’t alone out here in this swamp. Within a few steps, they passed around a large tree, and she saw that half of it was hollowed out and open. Her sister, and the rest of the people who had been at the table, were there. Summer, Russell, Freya, and Shiloh were all lying on the ‘floor’ of the tree’s hollowed out interior. None of them looked very good.

Seeing Summer, Dosina immediately moved to drop to her knees by the girl. Technically, they were what the Bystanders would call ‘half-sisters’ given the fact that they had different mothers. Both of whom were still very involved with their father. But those kind of polyamorous relationships were so common among Heretics that most simply stuck with referring to each other as full siblings unless an actual bloodline was important to the conversation.

“Oh, God, are you okay? Are you…” She touched her sister’s face, wincing at the heat and moisture she felt. “She’s burning up.”

‘They all have a fever,” Eiji’s uncle Banri, an Asian man even taller than his already quite large nephew, announced. “Whatever sent us here, it also made them sick. Most likely we were all poisoned. But we’ve stacked enough regeneration and other protections that it wasn’t enough to even notice. They… weren’t so lucky. All of them except Eiji and Harper there.” He nodded to the pair, who stood nearby, the former wearing his cyberform partner in its backpack form. “Our bloodline is very… resistant to magical poison. That’s why my nephew was unaffected. As for Harper–”

“I wasn’t hungry,” the pink-haired girl put in, sounding somewhat down from her usual incredibly chipper self. She was watching her teammates anxiously while standing quite close to Eiji as if instinctively seeking protection. “I uhh, sorta filled up on cupcakes before dinner.”

“So the spell–whatever brought us here, it was attached to the food?” Dosina frowned. “But if they’ve been poisoned–”

Garrison had already moved to kneel next to his daughter, touching Shiloh’s face. “They’ll be okay, with time. Mostly it’s draining their energy, keeping them too weak to do much. But we need to get out of here. Because if someone went through the trouble of poisoning us and sending us out here, it won’t be the end of it. There’ll be something worse coming. And there’s some kind of anchor spell in the area, keeping us here.”

Banri was frowning worriedly. “Stay here with them,” he instructed Dosina. “If anything happens, let us know. We’ll clear a path and see if anything’s on its way. Do not leave them alone.” He gave her a firm look, making the twenty-six year old feel as though she was back in school again until she nodded. Then he and Garrison moved out slowly and cautiously into the swamp.

“Guys, come here,” Dosina quickly ordered, looking toward Harper and Eiji until the two moved closer. As she started to turn her attention back to the swamp nervously, Summer’s hand found hers. The girl was shivering, face flushed as she murmured, “Dossier, you made it too.”

Ignoring the teasing nickname, Dosina jerked her attention to the girl. “Summer, you’re awake! You– wait.” Leaning back, she gave her little sister a very briefly suspicious look. “This isn’t some prank gone wrong, is it?” It would be just like Summer to think that sending her to a gross swamp would be hilarious. The girl was as attracted to disgusting things as Dosina was repulsed by them. And it also wouldn’t be the first time that a prank had backfired on her.

Summer’s head shook quickly. “N-no, definitely not a … a prank. Don’t be dumb.” She was clearly trying to be indignant, but lacked the energy. “I couldn’t pull all these people here. And I wouldn’t interrupt Family Day. I mean, maybe turning your room into a swamp, sure. But this?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Dosina muttered. “I was just hoping for a minute, because then we wouldn’t really be in trouble. But I think–huh?!” Her head jerked upward, focusing on a sudden blur of motion above them.

A creature was there. Dosina barely had time to register its entirely-too-rapid arrival as it fell through her line of sight before the thing suddenly landed nearby.

No, it didn’t land. It splatted. The thing crashed into the ground way too fast, basically exploding into a spray of goo that made her jerk backward with a yelp of surprise, and then one of disgust. “Ohhhh gross! It’s a… spider… thing.” Frowning, she hesitantly kicked the thing with a foot.

“It’s dead.” That was Summer. Still clearly barely able to move, her younger sister was staring at the body. “Or it was, before it fell…” Her voice was soft, whatever poison was affecting her and most of her teammates clearly making her too tired to even adequately react to what was happening.

Eiji was there, taking a knee by the gross, splattered body. The thing was an arachnid the size of a small deer. And now it was just sort of… all over. “The bit where the web comes out,” he murmured, “It… looks like it was… cut?”

“Cut?” Dosina echoed. ‘You mean like it was hanging up there to ambush us and then something else cut its spinneret and made it fall and splatter like that?”

“I guess,” the boy quietly confirmed before turning his head to look back up into the dark trees. “But who… or what would do that? If it’s… a person that wants to help, wouldn’t they announce themselves?”

“I bet they’re just shy,” Harper announced then before cupping her hands to her mouth to call out. She had just taken a breath, a sound starting to leave her lips before Eiji stopped her. “Harper, what are you doing?”

She blinked at him. “I was just gonna say hi and let them know that we want to be friends.

“We’re trying to be quiet, Harper,” Dosina reminded the girl. “As in not attract the attention of all the things out there that really do not want to be our friends.” She was trying very hard not to upchuck at the sight of the splattered spider still visible out of the corner of her eye. Dosina had never been very good with creepy crawly things of the normal variety, let alone big ones. And despite having done her share of fighting while at school, it had been six years since then. Six years where she hadn’t so much as thrown a punch. She’d never liked killing or any of that.

Still, she was the oldest person here with the other two adults gone for the moment. Her sister and several of her teammates were sick. If push came to shove, she would protect them. Even if it was gross spider things that liked to splatter disgusting guts all over the–

Don’t ralph. Do not ralph. Not only would Summer never let her live it down if she did, doing so probably wouldn’t make any of the kids feel any safer. She had to pretend to be in control, pretend that she wasn’t totally freaking out. Pretend that–

A rustling in the bushes nearby made her head jerk that way, even as a ball of fire appeared in her palm. Fire. She could do fire. Burn it. Burn whatever was going to try and hurt her sister. Her eyes focused on that rustling, and she thought there were eyes… malevolent ones… staring at her. The thing out there in the swamp, it was getting ready to lunge. And Dosina, terrified though she might have been, was going to meet it with as much fire as she could hurl in its general direction. But not yet. Wait, she told herself. Wait for it to show itself. Wait for it to lunge.

It was about to come. She sensed it, she could feel it. The thing was ready, and so was she. Any instant. Any instant it would show itself, leaping from the bushes with–

A yelp filled the air. It was short, but very distinct. And it clearly came from that same bush. Dosina thought she caught the briefest glimpse of movement, the bushes giving a single shake. Then there was silence. The malevolent presence was gone. Whatever had been staring at them had… left? Fought something else?

Behind her, she heard Eiji blurt, “Harper?”

Tearing her attention away from the now-silent and apparently empty bush, Dosina looked that way quickly, only to find the girl in question poking her head out from behind the large Asian boy. “Right here!” she chirped. “What’s wrong?”

Eiji blinked. “I thought you–err… never mind. This place is creepy.”

Harper’s head bobbed up and down quickly, pink pigtails bouncing. “Really creepy! What about the… the thing out there?” Her trembling hand pointed past Dosina, to the bush. “Should I uhh, throw one of my bombs at it? I mean, I know you said don’t attract attention, but if we’re about to be attacked and–uh, shouldn’t someone be watching it?”

“It’s gone,” Dosina informed her. “Maybe… it left, or… got scared? Or maybe something else–never mind. I don’t know, but it’s not there.”

“Ooh, maybe our new friend killed it,” Harper blurted with a broad, eager smile. “You know, the same one that killed the spider.”

“That’s not necessarily a friend,” Eiji quietly pointed out. “It could just be something or someone who wants us for themselves.”

Before Dosina could respond to that, a shape swept by the tree. It was moving fast, but was also very large… and very long. Despite its speed, she could see the shape continue passing by in the shadows for several long, terrible seconds.

“Um. Was that a snake?” The question came from Freya Sullivan, who was sitting up and staring that way. The red-haired girl looked tired, but she was at least awake. Barely. She only stayed that way for a moment before slumping once more. She, and the others, were drifting in and out.

“Guys, back away from the opening,” Dosina quickly ordered Harper and Eiji. “Just… just keep your eyes open. And stay back. If something’s out there, I can burn it.” To demonstrate, she conjured more flame to her hands, sending a burst of fire out through the opening of the hollow tree to light up the swamp beyond. There was no reaction, but she still sent a couple more bursts of fire that way. With any luck, it’d scare off whatever was lurking out there.

Eiji moved beside her, backpack in one hand. With a grunt, the large boy tossed it on the ground ahead of them. “Raphael?”

The bag responded by growing and shifting, legs sprouting from it. Within a few seconds, the ‘backpack’ had grown into a full-sized rhinoceros. The thing grunted and tossed its head back and forth a couple of times as though checking out its surroundings, before looking toward its owner with a worried huffing sound.

“It’s okay, buddy,” Eiji assured the cyberform rhino, rubbing its back. “You ready to protect the others?” When it gave another huffing sound, this time of agreement, the boy looked to Dosina. “Raphael’s immune to fire. And… well, a lot of other things. So, something comes after us…”

He gave a short, low whistle then. As he did so, the rhino stood up on its hind legs, like a person. It shrank a bit, head shifting down even as its back opened up. After a moment, the thing looked like an anthropomorphic rhino suit. Eiji stepped inside, and the suit closed up after him.

The thing had gone from being a backpack, to being a full-sized rhino, to being humanoid rhino-shaped power armor. And Dosina knew it had a fourth function, though she was pretty sure the thing’s motorcycle form wouldn’t be nearly as useful out here in this swamp.

“We’ll hold it,” Eiji finished his earlier statement. “It comes through, we’ll hold it, you burn it.”

“Err, right.” Dosina straightened. “Harper? Can you–”

“On it!” When the older girl looked that way, she saw Harper crouched by the rest of her teammates, giving her a thumbs up. “If anything sneaks past you, I’ll scream loud enough that you’d think we were all screaming.”

“Good, good.” Trying to suppress her own nervousness still, Dosina focused on that opening. If that… that thing came back again, it was going to get a big surprise. “Eiji, if you see anything come through…”

The boy nodded, the rhino-suit making him look even bigger than he already was. With it on, he was almost eight feet tall. “I can hold it,” he assured her. “And I can take any fire you can dish out. Just focus on pouring on the flames.”

They waited. Dosina and Eiji kept their eyes focused on the tree opening, waiting for the snake to show itself again. She was afraid to look away, worried that if she took her eyes off it for one second, the creature would know and use that to launch itself into the tree. Fear of being responsible for anyone’s death very nearly kept her from even blinking. First spiders, then snakes? She hated swamps. Hated, hated, hated them.

So tense was she, in that moment, that when Garrison and Banri appeared abruptly, she nearly fricasseed them both in a wild spray of fire before catching herself. “Don’t do that!” the girl blurted, before belatedly realizing that both men were staggering a little. Eyes widening, she moved that way to check on them.

“It’s okay,” Eiji’s uncle assured both her and the armored boy himself. “We’ll be fine. Just a lot of things out here like using poison. We dealt with most of it, but there’s a tribe of things I’m pretty sure we don’t want to meet heading this way. Best if we just avoid them completely.”

Garrison nodded. “There’s a clear path north. We’ll see if we can get away from the anchor spell that’s stopping us from teleporting out of here with you kids. Just move fast and stay together. We–Harper?”

The girl blinked that way. “Huh?”

“Are you okay?” The man looked worriedly to the girl. “It’s okay if you’re scared. We’ll get you through this. You… looked like you were spacing out there. What were you muttering? It sounded like… something degrees? Latitude and longitude?”

Harper turned a bit pink to match her hair. “O-oh, no, sir. I was just reciting baking recipes. You know, cooking temperatures. It um, it calms me down.”

Smiling just a little, Banri nodded to her reassuringly. “It’ll be okay. Don’t worry, we’re not going to let you get hurt. We do need to get going though. And fast, so… Enji?”

The boy had already stepped out of his armor, letting Raphael shift back to his rhino form. Together, he and his uncle picked up Summer, Shiloh, Freya, and  Russell, draping their barely conscious forms over the large animal’s back so that he could carry them.

Then they set out. Banri and Garrison led the way, with Harper and Eiji walking behind and in front of the lumbering Raphael, respectively. Dosina brought up the rear a bit back from Harper. It scared her more than she would admit, but she did it anyway. A small ball of fire conjured in each hand, she kept her eyes mostly focused behind them, barely paying attention ahead except to keep herself with the group as they moved through the murky, dark, terrifying swamp.

“Would asking where the giant snake went count as jinxing us?” Eidi asked aloud in a hushed tone.

“Giant snake?” Banri echoed. “We saw the body of one about thirty meters or so from the tree. But it was dead.”

“Maybe the same thing that killed the spider killed the snake,” Harper put in cheerfully. “Told you we had a friend.”

“Wait.” Garrison turned back, looking past all of them to Dosina. “I thought that was you.”

Her head shook quickly. “N-no, not me. I didn’t ki–” Her words were interrupted by a loud, sharp yipping sound from off to their right. It sounded like it was coming from far away, but not nearly far enough.

“Company,” Banri muttered. “We’ll talk about that later. Keep moving.”

So, they continued, Dosina trying not to think about what kind of things were probably watching their every movement, just waiting to pick off a straggler. And also trying not to think about the fact that staying at the rear and covering the others made her very much look like one.

A chittering sound to her right made the girl’s head snap that way. She saw what she could have sworn looked like the tip of a spear. Then it was gone. The bushes rustled, and the chittering stopped.

To her left and behind them, right there! It was a snout, appearing from the gloom before a mouth opened in a toothy smile that made Dosina’s heart stop. Her hand snapped up, a cry on her lips, just before the thing’s smile suddenly vanished along with the snout itself. It looked like it was yanked back out of sight, disappearing into the bushes with what she could have sworn was a yelp of surprise.

“Dosina?” The voice came from Garrison, and the girl realized belatedly that they had stopped when she did. Turning back that way, she saw Harper step back from the tree that had briefly hidden her. All of them were looking to Dosina with obvious concern.

“I–it’s okay,” she claimed, though she wasn’t sure it was. “There’s just a lot of… things out here.”

“Yeah,” Banri agreed. “There are. So let’s get away from them.”

She kept watching, kept waiting for another attack. Yet as they kept moving through that swamp, Dosina only saw signs of creatures about to attack and then… changing their mind, or disappearing. Whatever was happening, the things weren’t following through. She had to send a burst of flame here and there to scare a few things off, but for the most part, they seemed to vanish on their own. Maybe something out there had decided that ambushing the would-be ambushers made for a better meal than trying to attack the Heretics.

Whatever it was, Dosina was just going to be glad when they were out of there. She wanted to be in civilization again.

Forty minutes. It took them forty minutes of hiking through that gross swamp, feet constantly slipping in the ankle-to-knee length water, mud (and worse) working its way into their shoes and clothes, bugs flying around their faces, and… bigger things stalking them constantly, before they finally reached somewhat dryer land. Picking their way out of that swamp and up into the heavily forested area beyond, the group gathered together once more.

“Everyone okay?” Garrison asked while helping his daughter down off of Raphael. She and the rest of the team had woken up for good toward the end of their little hike. Now, all of them were looking around.

“Where are we?” Shiloh asked her father.

“I’m not entirely sure,” the man admitted. “But we’re away from the worst of the things in that swamp. And we’re pretty sure we know what’s stopping us from teleporting out. It’s you guys.” Briefly, he explained that whatever they had eaten hadn’t just made them sick and transported them, it was also anchoring them to the spot.

“So uhh, what’re we supposed to do to get rid of it?” Blanching at his own question, Russell guessed, “Throw up?”

“Wouldn’t do much good right now,” Banri thankfully replied with a shake of his head. “It’s settled in. We need a countering agent, which–err… Harper?”

The girl in question blinked up from the little bouquet she was poring over. “Hmm? Oh, uh, it’s just flowers. I like picking up pretty things when I’m, um, nervous. They’re not poisonous or anything, if that’s what you–”

“These.” Banri stepped that way, plucking collection of plants from her with one hand before separating out a few gray and white flowers in particular. “These should do the trick.” Unceremoniously, the man plucked the blossoms. “Everyone chew and swallow a handful.” He began to pass out the petals then, watching as everyone, including Dosina, chewed up the rather nasty tasting flowers and swallowed them.

They may have tasted bad, but the results were immediate. Dosina instantly felt stronger. Not that she had felt that weak to begin with, but the effects were still noticeable. And the others were showing more life too. Russell in particular was holding a hand up in front of his face, peering off into the darkness. “Wow, you guys must’ve been really busy protecting us.”

“Not really,” Garrison replied with a shake of his head. “It was mostly quiet on the way out. Why?”

“Mostly quiet?” Russell echoed. “Uh, you know that power I was telling you about at dinner? The necromancy-vision thing?”

“The one that highlights dead things?” That was Banri, the man nodding. “Yeah, why?”

“Uhh, well…” Shifting from foot to foot, Russell finally just held his hand up. A beam of blue light shone out from it, which he swept back and forth for a few seconds. Every dead thing the light touched, it made glow.

And there were a lot of things glowing. The beam didn’t reach all the way back along their path, only a couple hundred yards through the swamp. Yet even in that distance, several dozen dead bodies could be seen. They glowed brightly after being touched by the blue beam, dozens and dozens of bodies literally covering both sides of their path.

“What… the hell?” Garrison stepped that way, staring at the lit-up bodies. “What killed those things, and why didn’t we see or hear any of it?”

“I think we can address that later,” Banri replied, head shaking as he turned back to the others. “Once these kids are safe. Okay, let’s see if this works this time.” That said, he raised his hand and clearly focused. There was a few flickering sparks in the air, before an actual, genuine portal appeared. Dosina almost fainted in relief.

“Good. Right, let’s go.” Banri waved for the others to go ahead. “This’ll take us back to the school. We can figure out more from there.”

They started through, the kids who had been affected the most going first, while the adults covered them. One by one, they all went through the portal. All, that was, except for…

“Errr, Harper?” Dosina looked at the girl, who was placing a large chocolate muffin on a stump. “What are you doing?”

“Leaving a treat for whoever our nice mister guardian angel was,” Harper replied with a bright smile. “Because if they don’t eat the monsters out there, I bet they’re really hungry after spending all that time protecting us.

“I know I am!”  

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Interlude 39C – Gwen

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Felicity Chambers was working with the Seosten. That was the first thing that had popped into Gwen’s mind as she sat there at the library table, pretending that she was frozen in time along with everyone else.

Well, technically it was the second thing. The first thing that had popped into her mind on the subject was that the girl had somehow been possessed the whole time (which seemed impossible), or had ended up being possessed before they came back. But listening to the conversation further made that obviously wrong.

She was possessed, but not all the time. There was no other way to parse what happened with the phone and the way the girl subsequently announced that they were all there. She had sent a message and her Seosten ‘partner’ had recalled back to her. Which meant that she wasn’t possessed at that time and had willingly chosen to be possessed again.

She was working with her possessor, apparently. And also working with Elisabet… who was possessed by the Seosten named Jophiel.

At least Gwen now knew who the Seosten-possessed Committee member was. That was something she could use.  

As to why Felicity was working with her, it very soon became clear that the alliance wasn’t exactly the girl’s first choice. She was about as close to openly hostile to them over the death of Rudolph Parsons as she could possibly be, without being incinerated.

From what little Gwen was able to piece together on this situation, it seemed that Felicity being possessed was something separate from her deal with this Jophiel. She was possessed and the two were willingly working together to the point that the one possessing her could leave for extended periods and keep Felicity‘s memories intact. Somehow, Jophiel had learned about that partnership, and had a similar relationship with her own host. They were now using that to convince Felicity to work with them so they could show the Seosten leaders the virtues of an alliance with humanity rather than subjugation.

Boy, would Michael ever be interested in hearing about this.

And speaking of things he would be interested in knowing, Sariel had children. Tristan and Vanessa Moon were half-Seosten, which… answered almost as many questions as it created.

In any case, the Moon twins were Sariel’s, and Felicity was willingly possessed by a Seosten whom she was at least friendly with, from the sound of things. The four of them had apparently been co-opted by Jophiel and Elisabet to try and convince the Seosten leadership to change their strategy for dealing with humanity.

Yes, Michael was going to want to know about all of this. And there were a lot more questions that needed to be answered. How long had Felicity been possessed? What made her work willingly with her possessor? How close were they? Another romantic connection of some kind? His name was Tabbris, which given the history that Michael had told her about the historical Tabbris who had ‘betrayed’ the Seosten and stolen a planet out from under them, said a lot about whoever had named him. Unless he’d adopted the name for himself at some point…

And what made Felicity not tell her friends about the situation with this Jophiel? Because it was pretty clear that all this was very secret even from her own team.

On and on the questions went. Gwen had learned an astounding amount in a very short time simply from pretending to be frozen. But she hadn’t learned enough. She had to find out more. And that meant doing some work.

The instant the time stop was dropped, after the group passed through the portal that had been created, Gwen was on her feet and heading for the door. She could still smell the very faint odor of the memory clouding smoke, but that was the extent of its effects on her. She had been learning to protect herself from such effects almost since the time that she learned to walk. The Seosten loved their memory powers and spells, depending on them almost to the point of it becoming a crutch. Even beyond, some would say.

“Hey, Harper!” Shiloh Lexx met her in the doorway of the library. “You done with that thing already? Because they’ve got a soccer game starting up and everyone wanted to know if you were in.”

For a decent portion of her life, Gwen had pretended to be more than one person. Throughout her life in Camelot with her beloved Arthur, she had been both Queen Guinevere and her husband’s closest knight, the swordsman known as Lancelot. For quite some time, all save for their closest friends had believed them to be separate people, thinking that Lancelot was a man.

That was an arrangement which had ended up backfiring rather hilariously when she had been observed secretly leaving or entering her own room through the window multiple times as Lancelot, leading to the speculation that the two of them were having an affair. That had been an interesting situation to deal with.

Lancelot wasn’t the only other fake identity, both male and female, that she had taken up over the intervening years either. All of which meant that Gwen was very experienced in compartmentalizing her thoughts and personality, adopting new ones and shifting through them very quickly and easily.

So, despite the fact that she had about a thousand very serious thoughts and questions running through her head right then, there was almost no hesitation before a quick, broad smile broke across her face at the other girl’s words.

“Oh man,” she chirped brightly. “I hope so! But we’re not done yet. Flick just had to use the bathroom. We’ve still got work to do, so you tell them that I’ll be there if I can, okay? And play hard, because I’ll bring cookies for the winner.” She held that for just a second before giggling. “Okay, okay, I’ll bring cookies for everybody. But still!”

Shiloh still wanted to chat, and it took Gwen about a minute to extricate herself without being rude or making the other girl suspicious. Which meant that she had between six and nine minutes before Felicity would be returning. Much longer from that girl’s point of view, apparently. But still, between six and nine minutes for Gwen. It was time that she would put to good use.

To that end, she went for the female dormitory. The good part about the personality that she had established for Harper was that skipping and such didn’t look at all out of place for her, and it was actually a fairly fast way to move around. Hell, as energetic and enthused as she generally was, no one really batted an eye to see her even jogging through the halls. Or dancing, though that wasn’t exactly fast.

Reaching the room that Felicity shared with Avalon, Gwen took two minutes to temporarily clear all the security measures on the room. It would have taken a lot longer if she hadn’t done it before, and actually had that first time. She’d been at it for literally hours, carefully undoing security measure upon security measure while avoiding tripping any of the myriad of alerts. It had been pretty absurd, the level of protection put on that one room. She expected to get in within the hour at the time, and it had ended up taking almost three hours of off and on work to make sure she made it without throwing up a dozen alarms, either obvious or secret.

But the work had been worth it, since it meant that she now had a much quicker back way through all the spells, which only took her two minutes to manage. Two minutes still in a room that she was prepared for and had been in already, when she could easily get through basically any other room in this dormitory in about three seconds. Whether it was Gaia or someone else putting these spells on Avalon and Felicity‘s room, they clearly knew what they were doing. Gwen was impressed, even if it was almost annoying for her own purposes.

She made it in, however, with about two to five minutes to spare. She was going to assume that they would use as much time as possible, but still. Better safe than sorry. She didn’t have to be sitting right there when Felicity got back. But if she wasn’t, the girl will probably go look for her at the bathroom, thinking that Harper had gone to find her or something. She’d meet her partway in that case. For now, all that meant was that she had a couple of minutes to do this.

Closing the door behind her, Gwen immediately turned to face it. She stood for a moment, focusing before a single tear fell from her eye. As it did so, she reached up, using one finger to take the tear from her cheek and brushed it against the door knob.

For about three seconds, the knob glowed bright green before the glow faded.

The tear was not really one of sadness. Nor was it a normal tear at all. It was actually a power she had sought out, that of a Yletseit, wolf-like creatures who cried over their offspring and packmates to mark them. They did the same with prey, to the point that early beings who had encountered them thought that the creatures were crying about killing their food. There were some poems about that. But in truth, it was a hunting method. A Yletsiet could track and find any creature marked by their tears for about twenty-four hours.

The tear would sit on the doorknob until Felicity touched it. But just to be safe, Gwen took a moment to put a quick spell on the knob itself, which would put a very light shield around it, basically an invisible and undetectable sleeve. The spell would stop anyone else from touching the tear if they happened to come in, and was set to dissipate the moment Felicity was reaching for it.

That would hopefully do the trick. When Felicity went to exit the room, her hand would touch the knob and the tear would be absorbed by her skin. Then Gwen would be able to track her perfectly for the next twenty-four hours.

She possibly could have just put the tear on her hand and then shook Felicity’s, or patted her back or something, of course. But with something like this and all the attention that was on the other girl, it felt best to do it as far out of sight as possible. Let Felicity be somewhere she felt safe, here in her dorm room where she might be less likely to notice anything and where there weren’t a lot of other eyes paying attention. Besides, if the girl did find out about the tear, Gwen didn’t want her to remember Harper deliberately touching her wherever it was found. Safety and subtlety, that was far and away more important than convenience. It might’ve been overly paranoid, but she hadn’t gotten to where she was by being careless or rushing things.

She wanted to do a lot more than that, including putting spells on the girl that would let her hear what was going on. But that felt too dangerous, with all the extra magic she’d found all over this room and the girl herself. Plus, from what she had heard and put together, Jophiel obviously had ways of blocking those tracking spells anyway. This was the best way that Gwen could at least follow when Felicity and the others were eventually sent on the mission that had been mentioned. This, at least, wasn’t a spell. It was the best she could do under the circumstances.

And whatever it took, Gwen was going to follow them that evening. She had had no way of tracking the group to wherever they’d gone a few minutes earlier, but this she could do. Above all else, she needed more information. She needed to know what Jophiel was having them do, exactly, and work from there.

Besides, it was very possible that Felicity and the Moon twins could get in over their heads with this, and they deserve to have someone watching their backs, even if they didn’t know about it.

That very simple, yet incredibly important bit of business done, Gwen made sure the hallway was clear, then used an intangibility power to quickly step through the door so that she didn’t have to touch the knob, before setting the alarm spells back to normal. Out of time, she turned, heading to the exit and for the library to meet up with Felicity once more.

Whatever happened later that evening, Gwen was going to be there. And she was going to get some more answers.

******

Tristan Moon was very perceptive. Gwen had to give him that much. He had noticed her shadow on the ground as she knelt above the group in the top of one of the apple trees, listening to their conversation. Her teleportation power was entirely too fast for him (fast enough that she had been able to use it to escape from the dormitory back when that mind controlling boy had tried to tell everyone to attack Felicity, sending herself far away out of earshot before he could finish his sentence), but still. The fact that he’d noticed at all in the instant her shadow had been visible was testament to his ability.

Not that she would have been recognized if he had seen her. She had not only slipped on a different enchanted bracelet that changed her appearance to be different from both that of Harper and of her true self, but also wore what amounted to a white and gold ninja outfit, complete with a mask that covered all of her face save for her eyes. Layer upon layer of security. Even if she somehow lost the mask and was seen, the face she was wearing in that moment would tie back neither to her true self nor to her identity at Crossroads.

Gwen had been able to stay close enough to listen to a good bit of the conversation, though she had missed some of it, words here and there. She learned a lot more than she already knew while the group waited for their target to arrive. They talked a lot, which was helped along by the spell that Gwen herself introduced which subtly pushed them to bring up certain subjects. It was all very illuminating.

She found a bit more about the being possessing Felicity, the one called Tabbris. From the sound of things, he had been possessing the girl for awhile, even before the girl had known of him. Which made Gwen assume that he must have been sent by the Empire to possess the girl, and then… grown fond of her. Fond enough to eventually become romantic? That was the impression she was getting.

Either way, he was a full Seosten who was staying at the Atherby camp along with Sariel herself, who had been rescued from some prison lab pregnancy factory run by none other than Kushiel. And apparently those two were not the only Seosten there either. From the sound of things, the Atherbys had more former prisoners who had been rescued from the same prison.

The Atherbys. Arthur-By, as it had originally been. Gwen had disagreed with that group from the beginning, though it was not an entirely unfriendly disagreement. She knew why they set up to do things the way that they had. Their goal had been to openly oppose and delay the Seosten wherever possible.

Gwen, meanwhile, had believed that the best way to do things was to go completely underground. They needed to act in complete secrecy for many years, preparing for when Arthur would return. He would need a support network and as much information as possible. And he needed people to focus on bringing him back in the first place. That’s what she and the people who had been with her had been doing over the centuries. They and their descendants, that was. They had gone completely dark, putting themselves out of sight and out of mind for so many years simply to convince the Seosten that they were completely gone. It was the only way that they would be able to work to bring Arthur back when the time came.

But Gwen bore no ill will toward the Atherbys. She knew why they had chosen differently, and knew that Arthur would have respected that decision as well. In truth, both of their groups were likely needed. The Seosten would never believe that the remnants of Camelot had simply completely disappeared. Having the Atherbys around helped with that. Especially after she faked Lancelot’s death, as he would have been high on their priority list.

Still, even if she held no grudge against the other group, Gwen wasn’t going to go spilling everything she had found out to them already. For one thing, she didn’t know how good their operational security was at this point, so there was no way of knowing if it would get back to the Seosten. Besides, there was still a lot more she was going to need to look into before she would feel that talking to the other group was advisable. Especially as it sounded like there were actually other Seosten there, which was… very curious.

And just maybe she was a little hesitant to even anonymously leave Gaia any information. Anything that might even vaguely possibly make her look at Harper anymore than she did was a bad idea. Gwen wasn’t ready to have an actual discussion with the woman who had been Morgan Le Fay just yet. So she would keep the secret, for now at least. She would keep the secret, and look into it for herself.

Crouching unseen in the field, she watched as the group of students attacked the bus that was obviously a Seosten transport. She hadn’t been able to find out what they were after aside from the fact that it was ingredients for some kind of spell. What spell exactly, she had no idea. Probably because they didn’t either.

Speaking of spells, she had noticed something else while observing the children. They clearly weren’t aware of it, but Jophiel and Elisabet seemed to have put some other kind of spell on them. The magic made it so that anyone observing them would quickly forget specific details about them. Hair color, height, eye color, things they said, how they acted. All of that would be reduced to to very general knowledge almost immediately after it happened. It was obvious that the Committee member and the Seosten woman were protecting the group’s identities even more than the students were aware.

Gwen watched while they attacked that bus, noting their strategy and skill. They were already far and away beyond what a normal first year student should have been capable of. It was impressive. But then again, if they were being instructed by all the different tutors they seemed to be, that made sense.

When they finished, the group took a crate of some kind from the bus, using an enchanted something or other that Jophiel had provided which created a brief portal for them to disappear through. They also left several of the guards alive to escape, which was somewhat questionable. The humane part of Gwen applauded their mercy, even as the practical part of her worried about their leaving witnesses who might have identified them if it were not for the identity-concealing spells that Felicity and the others clearly didn’t know about.

It was a hard question, compounded by the whole Seosten slavery issue. Some of their troops worked with them willingly or because that was all they had ever known, while others were more firmly oppressed and held under the boot of authority. It was always difficult, if not impossible, to know whether the person you were fighting deserved to die or not. Far too often, the answer was the latter.

So she absolutely understood why Felicity and the twins had left as many alive as possible. Though she did wonder if it was any point of contention with that Tabbris. If the Seosten had been assigned to possess Felicity Chambers, he was probably quite experienced at doing the hard thing. Still, maybe he respected that they were trying to retain their humanity even while being put in these impossible situations. Gwen certainly respected it.

But she also needed information. And she didn’t want her presence to get back to Jophiel, even if her identity was concealed. She didn’t want to risk that.

So, she would interrogate the survivors. She would determine what they knew about the ingredients that had been taken from the bus, and see if she could figure out what spell was being prepared. Then she would get to know the people themselves. She would determine which were too dangerous to really trust to release and which could be freed. Those the latter would be taken to Michael, who would ensure that they didn’t remember any specifics before sending them somewhere at least somewhat safe to start new lives. As far as the Seosten in general would be concerned, the group would have simply disappeared. With luck they would attribute it to them either been killed or running away while they had the chance.

Jophiel would be more confused, of course. But she would hopefully also believe that the survivors had taken the opportunity to disappear rather than face judgment and punishment for their failure.

It was the best plan that she could come up with in that time, the best that didn’t involve simply killing all of them, which she was loathe to do.

The group of surviving guards had run almost two hundred yards from the sight of their broken bus when Gwen made her presence known. Appearing in front of them in her costumed, masked form, she looked up to meet their startled gazes.

“I know you’ve had a very bad day,” she announced quietly. “It can either get better now, or worse. You each have to decide which.

“But for the record, you won’t get to change your mind.”

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Day After Day 39-05

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I stood facing a door in the middle of a grassy field. The door stood completely by itself, with nothing apparently supporting it, and no reason for it to exist.

“Uh. Deja Vu.”

It wasn’t a dream. I hadn’t time traveled or anything. This was the day after my first training session with Brom, and the situation was very different than it had been back then. For one thing, I had not just the rest of my team around me, but also the entire combat training class. All of us had gotten a note to meet Hisao down here in on the grass and wait. Upon arriving, we’d found this door, standing here, just like the one that had first led me to Crossroads to begin with.

“Are we supposed to go through it?” That was Shiori’s teammate Gavin. The absurdly tall (he’d reached seven feet this year) and thin boy (though he had started to actually fill out a bit over the year, gaining more muscle tone than he had at the start) was squinting at the door, hesitantly reaching out to touch it.

“Stop that.” Koren smacked his hand. “Don’t touch anything before you’re told to. You don’t know what it is or how it’s been enchanted. It could be a trap, for all you know.”

“You’ve been spending too much time around that weird security guy,” Travis Colby informed her. “You’re getting all paranoid like him.”

Meeting his gaze evenly, Koren retorted, “Yeah, you’re right. Go ahead. It’s not like terrible things have been happening all year. I’m sure it’s fine. Touch away.” She made a grand, sweeping gesture toward the door for him.

From where he was standing, Zeke cracked, “She’s got a point, you know who is here. The door’ll probably explode if you touch it, and Chambers’ll be the only survivor.”

I saw Shiori and Sean both about to say something to the boy, but Koren beat them to it. “You know, if it shuts you up, that might almost be worth it.”

An even bigger argument might’ve broken out then, but the door suddenly opened. As everyone’s eyes snapped that way, Hisao poked his head out. “Good,” he started, “You’re here. Come on then.” Waving with one hand, he disappeared back again while pushing the door open the rest of the way.

Peering through, I could only see what looked like a large room on the other side. It was hard to make out details, mainly because it was pretty dark. The others were murmuring, some already starting to move through the open door while others hung back a bit. Scout nudged me, and I nodded to her before heading through alongside the other girl, the rest right with us. Some were more hesitant than others before reluctantly following. Even after all this time, they were still nervous about going through a portal that was opened by an Eden’s Garden Heretic.

Through the door, we found ourselves in that mostly dark, open room. The floor beneath our feet was slightly padded, almost like at a gymnastics studio or martial arts dojo or something. The walls looked like they were basically the same. Or what I could see of them did, anyway. The place really was huge. The ceiling looked like it was at least thirty feet up, and the room itself was circular. It was hard to judge in the dim lighting, but I would’ve guessed it to be about half the length of a football field in diameter.

Once we were all inside, Hisao nodded past me. “Shut the door, would you, Malcolm?” As the boy did so, lights finally came on, so we could see better. And sure enough, the place was about like I had already estimated. The padded floor was a dark red, almost black, with a large white circle that took up almost three-quarters of the room. Looking closer, I could see a bunch of different runes inscribed all along that circle. Actually, there were spells everywhere. Literally. Everywhere I looked, I could see a spell scribbled somewhere in view. Even on the walls, which were a little lighter shade of red, there were runes here and there.

Standing with her brother and the rest of their team, Vanessa raised a hand. “Um, Prof–Hisao?” The other girl still hadn’t gotten used to not using any kind of honorific with the man. She had the same issues with Nevada. “What is this place?”

Giving us an easy grin at that, Hisao replied, “I’m glad you asked. Otherwise we just would’ve had to stand here until someone else did so I’d have an excuse to brag about it.” With a wink, he gestured for everyone to follow him while heading for the middle of the room, crossing into that white circle on his way. When we reached the center of the circle, the man stopped and turned to face us. “This,” he announced, “is the new training center that Nevada and I have been working on for awhile.”

Immediately, Harper’s dark-haired teammate Shiloh raised her hand. “Err, not to put this the wrong way, but… well, you’re from Eden’s Garden and you spent all this time making this place, so…”

“Am I taking it with me when I leave?” Hisao finished for her. When the girl nodded, he chuckled. “Fair question. No. Actually, this is a smaller scale version of one of the training centers the vigiles have back at Garden. We let the trainees use them sometimes. Ours tend to be bigger and have destructible environments and buildings for full immersion sims. I told Nevada about them and we decided to give it a shot to make at least a simple version right here.”

Turning in a circle, Travis asked, “What’s so great about this place then? I mean, what makes it better than just training out on the field or in the gym or something?”

Smiling as though he had been waiting for that exact question, Hisao spoke up, addressing… someone besides us, apparently. “T.C. Set contact to one tenth.” There was what sounded like an affirmative chime before he looked straight to me. “Flick, would you mind hitting Sean there with your staff? Hard as you can manage, if you would.”

“Err.” Sean raised a hand. “Do I get a say in this?”

“It’s okay,” I replied, “I think I get it. Here.” Casually tossing my staff to him, I added, “You hit me instead.”

Catching the staff, Sean blinked at me, then shrugged before coming forward to smack me in the arm with it. He swung hard, giving me a briefly apologetic look. The staff snapped through the air, coming in fast before it struck my right bicep.

As expected, it didn’t hurt. Well, okay, it kind of stung just a little bit, like a friendly slap. At the last second before the staff would have hit me, I saw a slight glowing blue aura of some kind appear around it. The glowing… whatever it was slowed the staff, or cushioned it, or… something. The point was, it physically stopped the blow from hurting me, even though Sean was swinging it as hard as he could.

Hisao had Sean try it again, then had me take the staff back and try it myself against Sean, then against Scout. Nothing. They felt it, just like I did, but it didn’t really do any damage.

“As long as you’re in this room,” Hisao explained, “the spells that you see around you, combined with a lot of hidden technology courtesy of our good friend Nevada and a couple of the other Development instructors, will prevent you from doing any more damage than the settings are adjusted to. See? T.C. Set contact to one hundred percent and produce one clay jar.” After the chime came, part of the floor slid aside and a pedestal rose up to about shoulder height, with a clay jar resting on it. Once it was set, Hisao abruptly lashed out to punch the jar. It exploded into a hundred pieces.

“T.C., reset to the same and adjust contact to point zero zero zero zero one percent.”

At those words, the shattered remains of the broken jar abruptly disappeared. The pedestal lowered back into the ground before rising up once more with a new jar. That time, when Hisao lashed out, that same blue glow appeared around his fist at the last instant. The blow was still enough to knock the jar off its perch and crack it, but not enough to shatter it apart like the last one.

Which meant that Hisao punching something at point zero zero zero zero one percent of his strength was still enough to crack a clay pot and knock it off its pedestal. Just how strong was he?

“Even at full contact,” the man informed us then, “the room will not allow lethal blows. Your blades will be blunted and slowed, your bullets will be wrapped in magical fields that slow them down and prevent them from hurting any more than paintballs do, your lasers will be absorbed by pinpoint shields. Your fire, your ice, everything else, you can use them as much as you want. The room will protect the subjects. There are emergency procedures just in case, with evacuation teleports straight to medical care. And, of course, any powers you choose to use must be cleared to make sure the room is ready for them. Some will be disallowed.

“And things can also be simplified. Instead of saying contact level, the room can be set to injury level. If it’s set to mild injuries, for example, you can get bruises, sprains, that kind of thing. Moderate injury level would allow broken bones, though all of you have healing that can take care of that pretty quick. The point is, within this room, you can fight to your heart’s content. Use your powers as long as they’re cleared, use your weapons, whatever. Still use a bit of common sense, of course. But feel free to attack using basically whatever you’ve got.”

While we were all reacting to that, Hisao added, “T.C., sparring dome, please.”

At those words, a glowing, faintly blue, almost translucent forcefield dome thing appeared around us, projected from the white circle that we had crossed into. The man explained, “Sparring matches can take place within this dome, while spectators, teachers, or whatever stay outside, away from the attacks.”

“It’s like a cage match,” Malcolm observed, his own eyes widening. “Cool.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Travis lean closer to Zeke, half-whispering, “I thought you said the Garden people were supposed to be all primitive and shit, living in a big tree?”

As Zeke’s face turned a little red, Hisao gave a very faint smile before clearing his throat. “Right, there’s more, but why don’t we learn by doing, huh?

“Who wants to volunteer for a sparring match first?”

———

A few hours later, I was in the library with Harper once more, as we worked on our project for Professor Vandel together.

“And then I thought we could– err, Harper?” In mid-sentence, I stopped and blinked across the table at my project partner. The pink-haired girl was sitting completely still, utterly unmoving and unblinking. A slight glance to the left and right showed other people at adjacent tables or looking through the bookshelves were similarly frozen. Everything was frozen. Time was fro-

I jerked upright, spinning around to face behind me even as my staff found its way to my hand.

“Very good, Miss Chambers,” Elisabet, or Jophiel, announced as my eyes found her/them standing a few feet away. They were well within my item detection range, but it hadn’t warned me at all. Another example of being immune to that particular power. And I had no doubt that they would prove to be able to no-sell almost any other detection power I could possibly get.

“What–what are you doing?” I found myself demanding, even though I knew exactly why they were here. It was a reflex, and also the best thing I could think of to say instead of the curses that I wanted to come out with. That wouldn’t exactly help, thus the fairly obvious question.

From the brief look on the woman’s face, they thought it was just as obvious as I did. “We are here,” she informed me, “to collect you and the Moon children for our first true training exercise.”

“Are you seriously freezing everyone right now?” I demanded despite myself, feeling a slight pang of worry at the implication. “You can freeze Gaia without her even noticing?”

I saw a very brief smile appear then, before the Spanish woman gave a slight shake of her head. “No,” she informed me, “the headmistress would notice such an attempt. Which is why we waited until she was called away on other business. That said, there are others whose strength makes continuing this stop difficult as well, so we should not dally for long.”

Gesturing to the frozen girl at the table, I pointed out, “I think Harper’s probably gonna notice if I just disappear right when we were talking about our project. I mean, she’s not blind. Or dumb.”

In response to that, Elisabet stepped up to the edge of the table beside me. Her hand moved to her mouth, and I watched as she blew a cloud of light yellow smoke directly toward the frozen girl. As the cloud enveloped Harper’s face for a few seconds before dissipating, Elisabet turned to me. “There. She will believe that you excused yourself to use the restroom. That will buy you at least seven to ten minutes. Using our prepared time-acceleration compartment, ten minutes will easily translate into two hours. That should adequately suffice for this first session. Later this evening, you will need to get away for longer, but that will be easier as we presume you are more than capable of separating yourself from others for awhile, provided we extend the effort to account for your tracking spells.”

Something occurred to me then. She was talking so… clinically about all of this. Were they trying to distance themselves from what they were doing by talking to me like that? Where Gaia worked to establish an emotional connection, it almost seemed like they were going the other way.

“What about Vanessa and Tristan?” I asked. “Do we need to go get them? Err–and yeah, okay, I know this is a lot of questions. But seriously, you’re making me keep this all secret from everyone and I’m, you know, a little upset about that. Not to mention confused about how it all works.”

There was a briefly unreadable expression on the woman’s face then before she gave a slight nod. “That is… we understand that. And we understand your frustration. To answer your question, we already retrieved the Moon children. We need only for you to summon your partner. Which…” Her hand extended to gesture toward me. “… you should now be able to do.”

Right, my phone. Quickly pulling it out of my pocket, I found my text conversation with Tabbris and quickly typed out, ‘Do you remember that Spanish teacher from seventh grade? What was her name?’

That was the code we had set up ahead of time. Saying anything about a ‘Spanish teacher’, be it a question or a story or whatever, was code for Elisabet being there. As soon as she saw it, Tabbris would know what was going on.

Sure enough, I only had to wait a few seconds before the reply came. ‘Uh, one sec’.

That too was code. If the response involved seconds, Tabbris could get away quickly and recall to me. If it involved minutes, then she was hung up and couldn’t easily extricate herself.

A few seconds later, I felt her presence and quickly let the girl know what was going on before asking, Are you sure you can be away for awhile? I know it’s only about ten minutes, but still.

It’s okay, she assured me quickly. I said I wanted to go for a walk. I guess it’ll be a pretty quick walk, though. I didn’t know they had a hyperbolic time chamber too. Belatedly, she sniffed pointedly before adding, I bet theirs isn’t as cool as Apollo’s.

No bet there, I agreed, theirs only accelerates ten minutes into two hours. I’m pretty sure Apollo’s could walk all over that.

We shared what amounted to a mental high five before looking to Elisabet. From the look on the woman’s face, they were aware that Tabbris was with me. Probably just because of my expressions. “Okay, we’re here. Now how about you explain why you didn’t do shit to save Rudolph?”

Yes, it was confrontational. I was being confrontational with a woman (or pair of women) who could reduce me to ashes with what amounted to a thought. But fuck it. If they were of the mind to do that, nothing I could say or do would stop it anyway. And I was still upset.

“We intervened as much as we were able to,” she informed me in a flat voice that said they had been expecting this. “There was nothing more overt that we could do without arousing suspicion. If you think that we don’t care about the death of the boy–”

“Rudolph,” I interrupted. “His name was Rudolph Parsons. And you could have saved him.”

“We could have saved a lot of people,” she pointed out. “His death is a terrible thing. The universe is full of terrible things. If we had shown our hand then, we may have been removed from our position, hunted by our own people. We would not hold the authority that we hold now.”

“That’s another thing,” I pointed out, jumping on it, “you say you want to train us to work together so you can show your people that Seosten-human partnerships are better than slavery. It seems to me that you two have a much better example of that than Tabbris and I. Why don’t you show yourselves to these Seraphim of yours and prove it that way?”

For a brief moment, there was no response. Elisabet/Jophiel just continued to stare at me in silence. Then she straightened visibly. “First, we wish to show how well a… closer to typical Heretic and Seosten partnership could work. A five-thousand year old Olympian partnered with one of the Crossroads Committee Members is not typical and will not help prove the point.”

She let that stand briefly before continuing. “And beyond that, let us assure you that we will not exactly be hiding at that point. When the time comes to present you to the Seraphim, we will be just as exposed as you. Because the Seraphim are not idiots. If we are extolling the virtues and benefits of complete alliance with the humans, they will very quickly understand where Jophiel stands on the subject. They will know that we have been partners. So when we take you to them, we will absolutely be exposing ourselves to any and all repercussions as well, should it go poorly. Which is precisely why we wish to begin your training, if you are quite ready now.”

My mouth opened and shut before I nodded. “Okay, that was a good answer. How are we getting there?” I was still annoyed that they didn’t step in to save Rudolph, and that they were making us keep all this a secret from everyone. But they had a point, and I didn’t want to push things too far.

In answer, the woman gestured to the air beside her. As she did so, a glowing portal opened up. “Here,” she replied, “Sariel’s children are already waiting.”   

Ready for this, partner? I directed inwardly.

I… I guess so, came the reply. I don’t think we have much of a choice.

Smiling a little to myself, I sent back, Don’t worry. We’ll handle it. One step at a time. Right now, we train. We go along with it, we work with Vanessa and Tristan, and we learn everything we can. Later… well, we’ll see what happens.

She agreed, a bit more readily that time, and I gave a thumbs up to Elisabet and Jophiel before heading for the portal. On the way, I glanced back toward the spot where Harper was. “You’re sure she’ll just think I went to the bathroom?”

“Quite certain, yes,” the woman replied. “The child will remember you excusing yourself. Trust us, Miss Chambers, we know what we’re doing.”

Well, I couldn’t exactly argue with that.  So I shrugged, looking back to the frozen Harper. “See you soon, I guess,” I muttered before stepping through.

It was weird. For just a second, I almost thought the girl’s eyes narrowed fractionally. I guess your eyes could play weird tricks on you as you were passing through a portal. Because really, Harper resisting the time-freeze of a Committee member and remaining perfectly still throughout all of that?

Now that was crazy.

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