Shiloh Lexx

Interlude 18A – Avalon (Heretical Edge 2)

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“A real life murder mystery, are you serious?” 

“Yep!” Avalon half-chirped and half-growled in a put-on show of casualness betrayed by her clear annoyance and frustration. “You know, just one of those things Felicity managed to trip over.” As she said those words, the girl looked over her shoulder toward Aylen, who had been the one to ask the question. The two of them were on the edge of the new Wonderland wild west ghost town, watching Salten flying overhead. Avalon had needed a distraction, so she had her Peryton friend brought down to stretch his legs and wings. One of the Wonderland kids was perched on a special saddle they’d put on him. Salten had, of course, complained, but not too much. He liked giving rides to little kids, much as he might’ve made a show of grumbling about being saddled. 

Now, of course, there was a line of kids waiting for their turn. Avalon was ostensibly making sure everyone had their fair amount of time, but mostly she had been pacing back and forth obsessing over what was going on with Flick. Then Aylen showed up and gave her a reason to rant about the whole situation. Not that she was angry with Felicity, of course. It wasn’t her fault she disappeared. They had all gone in to check that place out, after all. It was just her luck that she’d been part of the group to get sucked into what turned out to be a secret vault in a pocket dimension. 

Honestly, after the past year and a half and everything that had happened since Avalon had met Felicity Chambers, it wasn’t even that surprising. She was mostly annoyed that her girlfriend had been taken away from her yet again without either of them having any say in the matter.

Now, she faced her other girlfriend and sighed. “She’s in there right now with those kids, Marina, and Fahsteth’s daughter, trying to solve a couple murders before the computer system will let them leave. They’re stuck in that place with a murderer, and I can’t do anything about it.” After saying those words, she turned and whistled for Salten to come down so the next kid in line could have a turn. 

Aylen grimaced slightly, stepping closer before tentatively putting a hand on Avalon’s shoulder. “I, ahh, I know that has to be frustrating. I’m sorry.” She paused briefly before offering a very faint smile. “This whole situation is strange, isn’t it?” 

“Strange because I have one girlfriend trying to help me feel better about my other girlfriend being magically teleported away to solve a decades old murder?” Avalon snorted audibly. “What’s so strange about that?” Her head shook then as she pulled the other girl’s arm to tug her into an embrace. “I’m sorry you have to put up with this. I’d understand if you want to get out of here.” 

“Are you kidding?” Aylen retorted while returning the firm hug. “You’ve seen my family. This isn’t that bad. Besides, I know why you’re worried about Flick. I care about her too. Not like you do, but still. She has a habit of getting in trouble.” She paused thoughtfully before adding, “On the other hand, you know if anyone in our class group is ready to deal with a secret murderer, it’s her.” 

Still holding onto the other girl, Avalon smiled to herself. “Of course. Though she’s not the only one well-suited for it. I’m sure you could sniff out a killer pretty well.”

“Maybe if they were about to strike again,” Aylen mused while leaning back to look her in the eyes. “Even then it’s not exactly reliable. I can’t tell every time someone is about to die.” 

By that point, Salten had landed. Avalon squeezed the other girl one more time before moving to help the one boy down out of the saddle before lifting the next volunteer. The new young girl was a squirmy, bouncy Rakshasa child, who settled down once Avalon firmly told her that if she didn’t get strapped in properly she wouldn’t be going anywhere.  

Soon, she was all set, and Avalon gave Salten half an apple to chomp down before sending him back up in the air. As the other kids all oohed and ahhed, split between asking the just-finished boy how his ride had been and watching the Rakshasa girl on her own turn, Valley stepped away from them and turned her attention back to Aylen. “Miranda and I went right through that door when they disappeared. Jeanne didn’t even have a chance to use her spear. We ripped it down and got into the place. Not that it helped at all. There’s some tunnels down there with supplies that were probably meant to be sent into the vault itself at some point. But nothing useful. Jeanne was tearing through some of the mountain itself when we got the call from Flick’s dad about what happened.” 

“He’s not very happy either, I take it?” Aylen guessed, reaching out to take the other girl’s hand. 

Squeezing back as their fingers interlocked, Avalon shook her head. “Not particularly, no. But honestly, I think he’s happy this wasn’t part of some bigger plot. It wasn’t Kushiel or those Whisper things, at least.” Her shoulders rose in a shrug. “I really don’t like the idea of her being in there trying to find a killer who’s been able to hide this long, but it could be worse, you know?” She paused before giving a heavy sigh. “And how bad is it that I can say that? Out of all the possibilities of what could have teleported Flick away and kept all of us from getting to her, this is pretty close to the best case scenario.” 

“There’s been a lot worse, that’s for sure,” Aylen agreed quietly. “I guess in this case the devil you know isn’t better than the one you don’t.” For a moment, the two of them stood together, watching Salten fly through the air with his newest charge. Then she added, “You know, I understand that you feel frustrated and like you can’t do anything to protect her when this stuff happens, but you’re pretty wrong about that.” 

Glancing that way, Avalon raised an eyebrow. “I’m wrong?” 

Aylen met her gaze. “Yeah, sort of. I mean, sure, you can’t always stop her from being taken away on these weird trips. You can’t lock her in a box and make sure no one bad ever so much as looks at her. To be honest, I’m pretty sure you don’t actually want to do that anyway. But you can protect her. You have protected her. Even when you don’t get taken along with Flick, you still protect her. All that fighting she can do now, a big part of that is because of you. She’s one of the best fighters in our whole–in a few different age groups. And sure, a big part of that is because of being taught by people like Deveron, or her mom, or Athena, or–yeah, there’s a list. But another big part of it is you. You laid the groundwork, and you make her keep training. You push her to be better all the time.” 

Turning to face Avalon directly, Aylen put both hands on the other girl’s shoulders. “You spend all this time helping her train and teaching her how to fight even better, and then she uses it when these people drag her off like this. She knows how to defend herself and she’s really good at it, because of you. You stand here and you talk as though you can’t protect her, but you do that by teaching her and making her train all the time. All those exercises you put her through, that’s you protecting her, Avalon. Because you can’t be there all the time. She’s ready for these situations, and much worse than this, because you make sure she is.” 

Avalon processed that for a moment, before raising both hands to cup the other girl’s face. Gently brushing her fingers down Aylen’s cheeks, she leaned in to kiss her softly. Their lips barely touched, before she exhaled softly and touched her forehead against Aylen’s. “You’re pretty smart, you know that?” 

“I have good breeding,” Aylen lightly teased, adding a soft chuckle. “You know, that’s an even more fun joke to make now that you actually understand what it means.” 

For her part, Avalon chuckled as well before glancing up to make sure everything was still fine. Of course, Salten would have made certain she knew if something was wrong, but still. Sure enough, the Peryton was still flying in a lazy, casual loop while his diminutive rider squealed in joy. As she watched that, Avalon quietly asked, “Have you figured anything else out about the Arthur thing?” 

“You truly are trying to distract yourself from this, aren’t you?” Aylen gave the other girl another quick kiss before stepping back a bit while running her hands through Avalon’s long hair. 

“Just a bit,” Valley confirmed dryly. “Shiori’s already distracted. She’s off helping her sister with that whole finding the person who stole her dad’s memory thing. Meanwhile, I’m standing here watching kids fly around while I wait for Flick to solve a decades old murder in a pocket dimension. So yes, please, help me be distracted?” 

Wincing, Aylen offered a helpless shrug. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how good of a distraction it’ll be. We haven’t figured out anything new. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do to bring him back. I don’t know if it’s something about my genetics, or something I can physically accomplish, or a choice I might make, or–or anything. I’ve been talking to Grandfather and he isn’t sure either. And my mothers don’t know anything. Or they all know exactly what’s supposed to happen and aren’t telling me because it’ll change something, I’m not sure which. Either way, there’s no answers coming from that direction. And Mercury already said he doesn’t know anything beyond the fact that I’m the one who’s supposed to do it.” 

“It’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it?” Avalon quietly murmured, hand moving to cup the girl’s face once more. 

Sighing, Aylen leaned into the touch while giving a slight nod. “I’d say you have no idea, but you do. How did you put up with that whole ‘being the one person who can enter the blood vault and get the spell that can stop Seosten possession and change the whole balance of power in the universe’ thing?” 

“Mostly by not thinking about it in those terms too much,” Avalon replied with a cough. “It’s way too overwhelming if you let it be. Sorry I brought it up.” 

“No, no, it’s okay.” Aylen insisted. “Trust me, I think about it all the time. How can I not? I’m supposed to… you know. Do that, somehow. It’s never far from my mind. In fact, I was just thinking about–hang on.” There was a buzzing in her pocket, and she tugged a phone out before reading over the text, a grimace finding its way to her face almost immediately. 

“Something wrong?” Avalon asked while watching her expression. 

Aylen glanced up, expression darkening. “Sort of, yeah. Shiloh’s asking for help. She and a couple others were supposed to pick up some new arrivals at the bus station, but there’s some old friends there. Well, definitely not friends. Old classmates, of the sort who stayed with Crossroads. They need some help dealing with the situation.” Quickly, she added, “But I can grab a couple others to–” 

“No, I’ll go with you,” Avalon insisted. “I can’t help around here. Someone else can watch the kids and make sure they all get a chance with Salten.” 

“Are you sure?” Aylen pressed. “I don’t want–” 

Avalon immediately interrupted, voice firm. “Aylen, trust me, I do not need to stand around worrying about Flick for the next… however long this takes. Now please, just tell me where we’re going. 

“Besides, if there’s one thing that’s gonna make me feel better about all this, it’s being able to punch someone in the face.” 

******

Miranda joined them, instantly volunteering as soon as Avalon poked her head in the craft shop where the other girl had been distracting herself by talking to the elderly glassblower who had been working there and told her what was going on. The three of them were also accompanied by Nevada, as well as Erin Redcliffe. Given what Shiloh had reported about what they were facing, the five of them should have been more than enough. But better to be safe than sorry. 

According to Shiloh’s report, she and a couple others were waiting across the street and had been about to make their move to make sure the station was safe, when they noticed Zeke Leven sitting on one of the benches. From there they had identified three other students from their year, as well as a single adult who appeared to be watching over them. This was a hunt. They were clearly waiting for the bus to arrive. Which would happen in the next fifteen minutes. There wasn’t a lot of time to spare. Not if they wanted to deal with this before there were even more civilians in the line of fire. 

Now, they were all gathered inside the empty office room across the street from the bus stop. The blinds were drawn, but Avalon stood at the edge of them peering through the gap. She could see Zeke still sitting there, just barely in view, obviously watching for the bus to arrive. Part of her wondered why they would have someone who would set off every Alter’s danger alert as soon as they saw him sitting in plain view. But maybe they wanted a panic? 

“I’ll handle Gilbert,” Nevada was saying. “The rest of you pair up. There’s four of them and eight of you, so two for each. Don’t be cocky, okay?” She turned a serious expression to them, a far cry from her usual perky attitude. “Yes, you’re all better than they are. You have a lot more real-world experience. But don’t be stupid about that. Take advantage while you can.” 

The others who had been with Shiloh to make the original pick-up were Eiji Ueda, the large Japanese-Canadian boy whose study habits rivaled Vanessa’s, as well as Cameron Reid and Rebecca Jameson. 

“Right,” Shiloh started to agree. “So we all pair up and spread out to jump these guys before the bus gets here. If we’re really quick and careful, maybe we can deal with it without scaring the people we’re supposed to be protecting, right? I mean, it’s not like they haven’t been through enough.” Her voice turned to a mutter then. “The whole reason we had to move them was because their old home got burned to the ground in a raid.”

Rebecca nodded. “They lost three people. Three members of their family. We promised they’d be safe on this trip, that as soon as they got here, we’d take them to their new home.” 

“And they will be safe,” Avalon announced without taking her gaze off Zeke. “We’ll handle these guys and then take the Alters to that new house. We aren’t going to let anything happen to them.” Maybe she couldn’t help Flick right now, or contribute in any way to that whole situation, but she could help these people. She could make sure they didn’t lose any more people they cared about. She could help deal with this. She would help deal with this. 

Erin spoke up from the corner of the room where she stood with her hand on the hilt of her sword. “That bus is gonna be here in twelve minutes. If we’re going to do this without letting those people end up getting caught in the middle, we need to get out there now.” She sounded anxious. Probably because she was thinking about her own father. Apparently he was still stuck back at Crossroads. Not because he was loyal to them or anything, but because they were essentially holding him prisoner. And probably not just him, come to think of it. He was just one example. Crossroads wasn’t eager to let anyone leave to join the Rebellion, to say the least. 

Avalon knew there was something more going on with that whole situation. Erin had been spending a lot of time with Nevada trying to work it out, and the two of them seemed somewhat cagey about it. That was why the girl was with Nevada when they had called her for help with this. Hell, Erin was probably just as happy for the distraction as Avalon herself was.

“Yeah,” Rebecca spoke up, her gaze glancing toward Avalon with a nod of understanding. She was worried about Flick too. “We need to move. I’ll go with Eiji. If that’s cool?” 

The tall, muscular boy agreed easily. From there, the others paired up, with Avalon and Aylen remaining together. However, just as they were about to move out, Valley gave one last glance out the window before holding her hand up abruptly. “Wait.” 

“What do you–” Nevada started before looking that way. Clearly, she used some sort of X-Ray power, because she was staring right at the wall in the direction of where Zeke was, before cursing loudly. 

“What?” Rebecca demanded. “What’s going on? What do you guys see out there?” 

“Ghosts,” Avalon answered. “There’s a bunch of ghosts surrounding Zeke out there. And the others.” She grimaced before adding, “They don’t look very friendly.” 

“Ghosts?” Shiloh echoed in confusion. “What’re ghosts doing out there? Why’re they messing with Heretics? They don’t stand a chance, right?” 

“Oh, I don’t know about that, we can be rather surprising and tenacious when we want to be. Well, our version can, anyway.” The voice came from the far corner of the room, where there should have been no one. As they all whipped their gazes that way, weapons raised, the assembled Rebel Heretics saw a single figure standing there. Or rather, hovering. 

“Ahem, what’s the right word?” mused Invidia, the Whisper who had taken over Charmeine’s ghost. “Oh yes. 

“Boo.” 

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Growth 18-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Dinner that evening was really something, to say the least. We didn’t eat out in the main cafeteria, figuring this was something we would want to keep a little more private. It would’ve been pretty hard to focus on things with a couple hundred pairs of eyes from everyone else in the room constantly staring our way if we had eaten in public with someone like Jegudiel. He was the sort of guy who tended to attract attention even without the whole archangel thing. With that added in? Forget it, we never would’ve had any privacy at all. And having all those people watching our every move would have made the whole situation even more uncomfortable.  

In the end, it was still a fairly large group of us at the dinner, all lined up along either side of a long table that had been set up in the Moon’s apartment. Along one side of the table was my dad, both of my grandparents, Wyatt, Abigail, Koren, and me. Along the other side were Haiden and Sariel, Vanessa and Tristan, Jehoel, Spark, Puriel, and Tabbris. Jegudiel was at the end, with Tabbris next to him to his right (her mother on her other side) while I was next to him on the other side, across from my little sister. 

The entire table was laden with dozens of heavy platters of food. Seeing all of it, Jegudiel  clapped his hands together once very loudly, the sound echoing through the room. “Now this is a meal!” he boomed, a broad smile spreading across his face. “You make sure to eat as much as you can, little teuslin,” he teased with a look at Tabbris. “We’ve got to make sure you grow up nice and big so you can squish the heads of your enemies like geppins.” 

Blanching a little bit, the girl squirmed in her seat. “I’m not really sure I’m gonna be up to, um, you know, squishing.” 

“Oh don’t you worry,” Jegudiel informed her, “I used to be a pint-sized little thing like you too. Believe it or not, I was even smaller when I was your age. And even if you eat all you can and still turn out to be a tiny one, it doesn’t really matter. You’re big where it counts.” He offered the girl a wink as she stared at him. “Hell, from what I’ve heard, you being kind of small right now is the only thing that’s keeping you from taking on the entire Fomorian Empire by yourself!” His words right then were accompanied by a hearty laugh. 

Smiling a little despite myself, I watched the girl’s reaction while speaking up. “She’s impressive, that’s for sure. I’d be pretty dead, or worse, right now if it wasn’t for her.” 

Grandmaria took a sip of her water before speaking. “And we’re all certainly glad that didn’t happen.” She smiled my way while adding, “Plus, I can’t say I object to having another grandchild to spoil. Not to mention how much Arthur appreciates being able to buy more of those little video games and pretend they’re actually for one of them.” 

Popser made a huffing sound deep in his throat. “You know I can’t just hand those over without making sure they’re appropriate. Besides, when they put them in the system, what if they have questions about how it all works? I need to have a thorough understanding of all that.” 

From where he was sitting next to his own father, Dad leaned over and whispered something in his ear. Popser listened, then gave a short nod before adding, “And working with them gives me a chance to practice with these technology power whoozits.” 

For a moment, it looked like Jegudiel was going to say something about that, his expression curious. But Haiden spoke up first. “I’ve got a question of my own for you, big guy.” His gaze was focused down the table to the archangel. “How do you think the people on the front line of that war would feel about the idea of working with humans instead of using us as flesh-and-bone mecha to pilot around? You know, letting us have a say in what happens. Is it like people around here talking about asking their trucks for permission to drive them?” 

Obviously, he wasn’t the only one wondering that, but I was still surprised that anyone had asked so directly during the very first meal with this guy. And judging by a few of the looks he was getting from some of the others, they might’ve thought that he had gone too far. 

Jegudiel, however, observed him curiously before giving a short chuckle. “I wouldn’t have expected any other question from the one they called the Bane. You did an awful lot of damage while you were out there, you know.” He actually sounded admiring in that moment rather than reprimanding. “Kept a lot of them on their toes, so they didn’t get soft back away from the front lines.” Pausing briefly to consider, he amended, “Well, not as soft, anyway. You did some fine work. A lot of bad work too, but considering the situation… ehh, can’t say as I blame you too much. 

“Anyway, as for what you were asking about, I don’t really know, to be honest. I don’t use a host unless it’s for some quick tactical advantage, making them think I’m not there or something like that. And in those cases, it doesn’t tend to last very long. If there’s some big discussion going on about that, I haven’t heard it.” He shrugged. “But then, I’m usually too busy kicking Fomorian teeth down their throats and then ripping their spleens out to get the teeth back to actually listen to stuff like that. Tell you what, I’ll have one of my people who’s actually more into that subtle talking stercus ask around to see what the general feeling is. That good enough?” 

Haiden seemed to think about that briefly before nodding. I had the feeling he was surprised to get an actual thought-out response, let alone an offer like that. “Yeah, I’d say that’s good enough.” Another pause came before he added, “Thanks.” 

From there, Wyatt asked something about a bit of Seosten magical security he had been working on taking apart, looking for advice from Jegudiel. The thing was, I happened to know for a fact that he had already long-since solved the problem he was asking about. Clearly, this was a test of some sort. He wanted to know if the man would send him down the wrong path. Whether he did or not, I wasn’t sure. Because even with the advanced lessons I had been getting, I absolutely could not follow Jegudiel’s response. And Wyatt’s next words sounded even more like total gibberish. From the way Sariel reacted, I could tell they weren’t actually just fucking with us and were actually saying real things. But damned if I could follow any of it. 

Still, at the very least, I was able to sit back in my seat and watch them go through this whole impossible-to-understand discussion. Then I looked back and forth along the table, seeing everyone watching as well. My grandparents, my dad, the Moons, we were all sitting here with Tabbris’s archangel father while he and Wyatt discussed security spells. This was all so surreal. Even in a world that had already been so impossible, a world where I had once foolishly thought I was completely beyond being surprised, this was… something. 

Sometimes, I had to take a metaphorical step back and really look at what my life had become over the past year and a half. Honestly, I had no idea how I had gotten here. 

And I certainly had no idea where I would be once another year and a half had passed. 

******

I may not have known where I would be in eighteen months, but the next morning I was attending Xenozoology class, where we learned about Alter animals. Lillian wasn’t there to help teach this time, of course. She was still with Mom in Peru, working on taking care of that whole situation. But we did have Scratch, the short guy from Eden’s Garden who I had met at the beginning of the year working with these animals. 

Obviously, he didn’t look any different now. The man still had the same long, dark gray hair tied into that same ponytail, and that crescent moon-shaped scar still marked his very tan face from just under his right eye down to his cheek. Even after all of this time, I still had no idea what had caused his scar. Nor did I know any other name he went by besides Scratch. But then, from what Miranda and Seller had said, no one else seemed to know any other name either. He simply was, and apparently always had been, Scratch. 

At the moment, the man in question was standing next to a cage that has been covered with a tarp. He was watching me and the rest of the class, his gaze making it clear that he was considering just how to start this lesson. Or possibly wondering if we were ready to hear it. Finally, he exhaled, the sound of his soft sigh stopping the whispering that was going on. Not that there had been a lot of it, but still. Everything went completely silent at the mere prospect that he was about to say something. 

“No yelling,” the man started flatly, in the same simple, soft voice I had come to expect from him. He wasn’t the type to raise his voice or act outwardly excited. He always carried himself calmly. Which was probably why he was so good with the animals. Or maybe the fact that he spent so much time with animals was why he talked like that. I wasn’t sure which came first in that particular egg and chicken situation. “No raising your voices or blurting things out if you’re not called on. I don’t want any of you scaring the poor guy, or making him think he’s in trouble. When you want to say something, raise your hand until I say your name. When I do, you talk in a normal, quiet, civilized tone. Does everyone understand?” 

He waited until we had agreed before putting his hand on the tarp. Once more, he looked over at us, his eyes inquisitive. “How many of you can tell me what this is?” With that, the man pulled the tarp away from the cage, not so much ripping it off as giving a simple gradual tug so it came up smoothly and steadily. Probably to avoid startling the creature inside. 

And what a creature it was. Now that we had a chance to look at it, I could see what looked like an ordinary wolf at very first glance. Except it was bigger in the shoulders and had paws that were more like a bear, with long claws. Which I was given a decent view of as the thing reared up on its hind legs once the tarp came off. It didn’t just briefly rear up either, it stood and stayed that way, its wolf-like head snapping first one way, then another as it took all of us in. The thing pressed its paws against the glass of the cage, deadly claws extending. Yet I didn’t get the impression that it was trying to break out, or even threaten us. It seemed more like it was showing the claws to let us know that it wasn’t helpless, and that if we tried to hurt it, there would be a fight. 

So it was a wolf with bear paws that could stand on its hind legs, but that wasn’t the only thing different about this thing. It wasn’t simply a bear-wolf hybrid. That much became clear as the large bat-like wings unfurled from its back and spread out. Probably to make itself look even bigger, to ward off any potential threats. The thing was spreading those bat-wings out from one end of the cage to the other, its eyes looking over every one of us in rapid succession to assess if we were going to try to attack. 

“No sudden movements,” Scratch reminded us in his soft tone, drawing the creature’s attention briefly before it went back to looking at the rest of us. “Don’t startle him. Just let him take it all in. He’s usually in a bigger enclosure, so he might be a little grumpy right now. But he’ll be okay. Especially once we get him some food. He’s been doing presentations with me for awhile now. Like I said, how many of you can tell me what he is?” 

Vanessa wasn’t in this class, or I was certain that her hand would have rocketed straight into the air. Instead, it was Jason Furuya, the Natural Prevenkuat Heretic, who raised his hand. The Asian guy, who had a scar of his own over his cheek (though not as pronounced as Scratch’s, waited until the teacher said his name before speaking. “He’s a Kludde, right?” It sounded sort of like ‘could’ but with the added L sound right after the kuh sound. Kludde. Like if you mixed up could and cloud and tried to say them both at the same time, or something. 

Scratch smiled faintly, giving a short nod. “That’s right, top marks, Furuya. What else can you tell me about the Kludde?” 

“Uh.” Jason hesitated. “They originated–I mean, here on Earth that is– around the Netherlands and Belgium, right? People thought they were werewolves at first. Uh, werewolves with wings, I guess.” 

“Werewolves with wings, or even the Christian devil,” Scratch confirmed. For a moment, he looked a little amused. Probably because he was thinking about the fact that even his own moniker used to be a nickname for the same devil. Old Scratch, that was. Or maybe he was thinking about the fact that we literally had Lucifer himself, now Apollo, living with us. Either way, he took a moment to smile about something before continuing. “People thought a lot of things about them, some true, some not. Who knows why they’re called Kludde?” 

Even as he asked that, the creature opened its mouth and gave a sharp barking sound. Which sounded an awful lot like its actual name. It barked again, and it sounded even more like it was saying ‘kludde.’ 

“Now that’s just cheating,” Scratch informed the creature with a sidelong look. “You’re not supposed to give them the answers, Montgomery.” 

Rebecca started to say something, a noise escaping her before she caught herself and raised her hand. When the man said her name, she asked, “Montgomery? His name is really Montgomery?” 

“That’s right,” Scratch replied with a simple nod. “Montgomery here is the nicest of his pack. There’s also Edna, Waylon, Ned, Maude, Luann and Seymour. Maybe once you all have a little more experience, I’ll let you see the rest of them. But for now, let’s stick with Montgomery. Who knows something else about the Kludde? Anything at all, I’m sure you’ve heard of them now and then.”

One of the other students, a tiny pixie with long green hair and polka dot clothes, flew up and down in the air to attract attention with her arm raised. Seeing that, Scratch pointed. “Jeckselprea?” 

“Just Jeck is fine, sir!” the pixie chirped. She sounded like Namythiet, and I found myself briefly wondering how the other pixie was doing. “And is it true that if you kill one of them, seven more appear?” 

Scratch shook his head. “No, that was either people getting them mixed up with Jekerns, or just seeing babies crawling out from under the mother’s body and thinking they magically spawned.” He paused before muttering, “People can be really stupid sometimes.” He shook that off before focusing. “If you kill a Kludde, you just end up with a dead Kludde.” 

“Are they shapeshifters?” Koren asked once she was called on. “I think I remember something about how they can change into a lot of different animals.” 

“That they can do,” Scratch confirmed. “Kludde are very powerful animal shapeshifters, almost as good as Pooka. Even stronger, in some cases. They can become plants too. Makes it a little complicated to keep track of them when they keep turning into trees and bushes in their enclosure.” He added that bit with a small smile, clearly amused by a memory of just such a situation. “Some say they can become human, but it’s rare. And even when they do, they don’t talk. They might mimic things they’ve seen humans do, just to try to blend in. Or hunt.” He added that bit with a small smirk. “Anyone else? They’re shapeshifters, they can fly with those wings even in this form, and they do not spawn seven babies when they die.” 

Ruckus, the guy who looked like an assortment of slinkies, raised one of his metal coils until Scratch acknowledged him. “They’rereallyfastright? Imeanlike… theycangetfrom… oneendofthisroom… totheother… sofastit’s… likethey’reteleporting.” 

Oh yeah, Ruckus talked like December. Except somehow, he seemed to get words out even faster. Thankfully, someone seemed to have had the same talk with him about slowing down slightly so he put some intentional pauses in his sentences. Not exactly between every word, but enough that it wasn’t completely impossible to follow what he was saying. Just difficult sometimes. It made me wonder if all of his people were like that, or if that was just a Ruckus thing. 

Scratch nodded. “Yeah, they’re pretty quick, whatever shape they’re in. I’ve clocked Montgomery here doing two hundred and ten miles per hour in a sprint. Not quite blinding speed, but you try telling a Bystander in the seventeen hundreds that what he called ‘incalculable’ speed is actually slower than the airplanes they’ll use in a couple hundred years.” He chuckled softly before sobering. “So yes, they’re very quick, even faster when they fly, and they can shapeshift. All of that makes them pretty dangerous when they want to be. Which brings me to the next question, who can tell me what they like to eat?” 

No one had any answer at first, until Shiloh raised her hand and hesitantly offered, “Um, liars?” She sounded uncertain, like she thought she might just be repeating a silly rumor. 

Scratch, however, beamed a bit. “Yes, actually. That’s pretty much right, believe it or not. The Kludde have the ability to sense when someone is lying. Not just a little white lie, but the malicious kind. They can tell when someone is keeping deep, dark secrets. Evil secrets. And the worse those secrets are, the more… evil the person is hiding inside, the tastier they are to the Kludde.” He paused then, clearly letting that sink in before dryly adding, “As you might expect, a lot of the people in positions of authority and power didn’t really like having them around. So, even before the whole… Bystander Effect came to full power, they started spreading rumors about the Kludde eating babies, literally being Satan or just a demon in general, spawning from the cremated bodies of dead witches, that sort of thing. Anything to stop people from paying attention to what–or rather who the Kludde were actually trying to eat. And, as a side note, that’s also where we get the concept of hellhounds. Well, that and the whole Cerberus thing, of course.” He gave me a brief look before continuing. “They went all-in on making these guys look as evil as possible, just so they’d be hunted to extinction. And they nearly succeeded. Montgomery and his pack are one of only a few left here on Earth. Well, somewhat close to Earth, anyway.”  

Offering us all a slight smile, the man continued. “I’m going to let my buddy here come out of the cage in a minute. Everyone just stay calm and steady. Spread out so there’s several feet between each of you. I’ll lead him to one person at a time. Let him sniff you and then put his head down. When he does that, you can touch him. Just scratch behind his ears or under his chin. And if any of you aren’t comfortable with doing that, go ahead and take a few steps back that way. No one’s going to give you a hard time. 

“And if they do, let me know. I have plenty of other fun things that could eat them.” 

******

So, I made it through the rest of that class, as well as the next couple. Eventually, I was on my way to lunch, wondering if I would see Tabbris there or if she was still busy with Jegudiel. On the way, however, I was interrupted by the sound of someone calling my name. Turning, I saw Miranda sprinting down the hall. She came to a sliding stop, blurting, “We gotta go down to the Eden’s Garden rebels, down by the ocean, the hotel, down there. We gotta check it out.” 

“What?” I blinked a few times, head shaking. “What’s going on? Is something wrong?” 

“Wrong?” she echoed, grinning. “No, nothing’s wrong. It’s right. Dakota, she did it. She finally got them working.” 

“Dakota–the vines?” I realized belatedly. “She managed to make the vines grow?” 

Miranda’s head was bobbing rapidly. “Not just grow, she managed to get a few of them to bloom. New apples. She made the vines give off new apples. 

“We can make new Heretics!”  

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Growth 18-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The next few days passed relatively uneventfully, aside from the funeral for Tribald Kine. A funeral which made me feel even worse for the fact that I hadn’t been able to bring his ghost along with us. I still couldn’t understand that. I had felt other dead people there, so why couldn’t I feel him? My only speculation was still that his ghost had been taken or left before I could get to him, which… 

In any case, Mom showed up for that, taking time away from her mission to say goodbye to her friend. She spent a little time with me as well, apologizing for not being there. I could tell just how torn up she was. The guilt at the fact that she hadn’t been there to help her old friend… yeah, it was bad. And if she felt bad about not being there, I couldn’t even imagine how bad Deveron felt considering he had been there and still couldn’t save him. 

With that thought in mind, I made sure that Mom spent most of the time she had here with him, as well as the Dornans. They were the ones who needed her at the moment. Tribald had been their friend for a long time. They needed each other. Dad understood that too, and left them alone after having just a little bit of reunion time with Mom as well. We were both there for the funeral, but other than that, we let Mom, Deveron, and the others from that time mostly just be with one another. They could reminisce, focus on the good times they’d had with their friend. It wasn’t exactly fun, but it felt like remembering why they cared about him was more important than focusing on the fact that he was gone. And as my mother put it, this was not the first long-time friend they had lost. 

In any case, she stayed as long as she could before the situation in Peru forced her to go back there. Lillian too. Both of them apologized for not being able to stay longer. Yet when they left, they had company. Deveron and the Dornans were going with them, apparently against both Mom and Lillian’s objections. But the guys insisted that they needed to keep themselves busy.  

So they were busy with all that. Meanwhile, I spent the rest of the weekend resting and doing a bit of studying for classes so my parents and Abigail wouldn’t completely freak out about me missing out on school. It was kind of nice not having anything immediately demanding my attention. Not that there wasn’t plenty of stuff to worry about, between the regular Alter-rescuing missions, fights against Loyalists, and so on. Hell, that wasn’t even counting the big things like trying to find Tiras’s second family, figuring out what was going on with that prisoner camp and the monster they had been feeding, and everything to do with the Whispers. Yes, there were a lot of things I could be focused on. But between the things I couldn’t do anything about right then and the ones I had been specifically told to leave alone for the moment, I had no choice but to relax and focus on school. Honestly, I wasn’t going to complain too much. Taking a little break felt like the right thing, after that whole thing we had just been through. Which, sure, a large portion of the time had been spent sitting in that truck not really doing anything, but it was far from relaxing. Not when we could have been discovered and attacked at any point, on the way there and back. To say nothing of the actual fighting we had done once we arrived. 

The point was, being able to sit around for a few days without much in the way of responsibility or terrifying panic was good. Especially considering I could spend a lot of it with Shiori and Avalon. Even Valley toned down the obsessive need to train a little bit. Not completely, of course. She was still herself. But that whole mission had taken a lot out of her too. 

Between those two and spending time with my dad, Tabbris, and my grandparents, that was basically how my weekend went. I even had Monday off because it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Which didn’t mean all that much to anyone who had grown up in other countries, let alone other worlds (like all of Athena’s people), but they certainly understood the concept of celebrating the life of a man who had wanted everyone to get along and have the same rights. So I had a three-day weekend, which was pretty well-timed given how much I needed it.

By the time Tuesday rolled around, I felt ready to sit in class just quietly listen to the teacher. Who, in this case, was Rovon Reinswield, the guy I’d met the first time I’d visited this station way out in Seosten space, who had once been a loyal Eden’s Garden Heretic before he’d objected to the recruitment of an innocent little girl and had thus been thrown out onto the frontlines of the Fomorian war as a flesh-suit for a Seosten. Athena and her people eventually rescued him, and he had been helping teach the children they brought in ever since. 

Seeing the man sitting there at the desk after I walked into history class, I paused and tilted my head. “Don’t you usually teach the younger classes?” I knew for a fact that Tabbris enjoyed  every lesson she had with him. 

Giving me a somewhat distracted smile, the scruffy-looking man with short blond hair and round glasses nodded once. “Normally, yes. Unfortunately, your ordinary teacher for this class is a bit indisposed at the moment. As is his substitute. The sad reality of having teachers who double up as soldiers in this war. So, I volunteered to step in for the day. With any luck, I’ll avoid passing out in the middle of the lesson.” Reaching out, he picked up his mug of coffee and gestured with it. “Well, luck and a little bit of magical help.” That said, he took a sip of it and murmured appreciatively. “Mmm, abracadabra.” 

By that point, others had to started to file in, and I wished the man luck before going to find a seat next to Koren and just in front of Shiloh, the girl who had been on Harper/Gwen’s team last year, and whom I had gone through that underwater mission in Sinbad’s class with a little while back, where we had searched for treasure on that sunken spaceship. 

As I sat down, the girl behind me spoke up. “Hey, you guys found a bunch of Alters who were trapped in that prison place, right?” Brushing shaggy brown hair out of her eyes, she watched until I nodded before pressing on. “I was just wondering if you found any trolls while you were there. Two trolls, specifically. Brother and sister.” 

“I uhh, I don’t know if they’re brother and sister, or even what sex either of them are,” I admitted. “But yeah, we found a couple of trolls. They call them Two and Three, but I’m pretty sure that’s not their actual names. I think they’re still going through intake with Athena’s people so they can explain the situation. Which is uhh, taking a bit because the trolls don’t speak English or Latin. Why?”   

“We’ve got some people looking for them,” Koren put in. “From one of the rescue missions we went on a few months ago, while you were… you know.” 

Yeah, I knew. While I was trapped with Fossor. The memory made me grimace before giving a slight nod. “You rescued some people who were looking for a couple missing trolls?”  

“They heard about your mission,” Shiloh explained, shifting a little in her seat. “So they came to find us and said they had a couple troll friends who were taken to some Eden’s Garden work camp that sounded, you know, similar. I’m pretty sure they said their friends only spoke Troll and umm, what was the other one?” 

“Akkadian,” Koren answered, giving a nod my way. “They speak Troll and Akkadian. You know, from ancient Mesopotamia. If Athena’s people have anyone who can understand either of those.” 

“I’m pretty sure they can drag somebody up,” I agreed with a small smile. “Last I heard, they were having Buddy System from Wonderland talk to them. But if these people who were asking about them are around, having them up there would probably help a lot too. Especially if they’re friends. From what I could understand, I think those two have been… eager to help. They’re really friendly. Can’t understand a word I’m saying, or vice versa, but still really friendly. They smile a lot, and wave. They like waving. Shiori taught them to do a thumbs up if they like something or a thumbs down if they don’t. They like doing that a lot.” 

We talked a little bit more about that, and the other two promised to go find the people who had been asking about the trolls, so they could take them up to meet the pair and find out if they were the right ones. Shiloh sent a message to them through her wrist computer. Which literally involved her typing on the screen until a small glowing envelope appeared in the air like a hologram before it flew off. Apparently the thing would go straight to the nearest of the people they had talked to, and when that person touched it, the message to meet after our classes were over for the day would appear in the air in front of them. Which was a pretty neat trick, to be honest. Shiloh’s wrist computer seemed cooler every time I saw what she could do with it.  

Other than that, we focused on class. Despite his words about being tired, Mr. Reinswield seemed to have plenty of energy once we actually got started. Apparently the coffee had reinvigorated him, because he paced throughout the entire class, gesturing a lot while he told a story about the ancient Mayans fighting off an invasion of off-world sapient bear creatures with the help of magic and these flying snake things (not Rattlejacks). Between that and the fact that the alien bears apparently used mechs, the whole story really should’ve been made into a movie. I definitely would’ve paid money to see it, at least. And judging by the way everyone else was staring in rapt silence through the entire story, I was pretty sure the rest of the class would have too. 

Eventually, however, that class was over and I made my way to the next one for the day. Specifically, the very same Calculus class I had been studying for with Vanessa and Tristan. Between working with them and the studying I’d done during the trip, I at least felt like I hadn’t been completely left behind. Still, the teacher had me take a little ungraded quiz through the first fifteen minutes to see if I was still good to stay with the class or if I needed some extra help. Apparently I did well enough, because she gestured for me to take my normal seat before getting back to the lesson. So I was definitely going to have to let Vanessa and Tristan know that their help had paid off. 

Eventually, however, that class ended as well. As did the third and final class of the day. Well, final for everyone else. I still had some make-up to do in the afternoon, along with the others who had gone on that mission. For the moment, however, I headed for the cafeteria to meet up with Tabbris and her newly-reunited siblings so we could have lunch together. 

It only took me a moment of looking around at the entrance before I saw the girl in question standing up on her chair to wave at me from a corner of the room. As I waved back and made my way through the crowd, I eventually found the trio sitting around a table that was heavily-laden with bits of machinery, tools, and what looked like blueprints. 

“Boy,” I remarked, “doesn’t this all look positively scrumptious?” I made a show of rubbing my hands together while looking over all that stuff. “I hardly know where to start. Hmm. Oooh, I heard socket wrenches are always a good way to start off a balanced meal.” With that, I started to reach out for the tool in question as it lay on the edge of the table. 

Omni–no, he was mostly going by Jehoel now, his real name. The pale boy with shaggy brown hair quickly gave a laugh while reaching out to cover the wrench with both hands. “You can’t eat that!” he blurted, only to immediately flush guiltily, instinctively moving his hands as he withdrew as though a snake had hissed at him. “I–I mean… I mean…” It was obvious that he’d had a flash of memory about how bad it was for him to tell anyone they couldn’t do something. Let alone actually reach out to physically stop them.  

Tabbris looked like she was going to say something, but held off as I spoke up instead. “It’s okay, Jehoel. You’re right, we’re not supposed to eat tools like that. Especially not tools that belong to other people.” Offering him a little smile, I held my hand out. I didn’t just take his hand, given how important it was to convince the boy, and the other Seosten like him, that it was not only okay to touch other people, but also okay to not want to be touched as well. It was up to them to decide what they were comfortable with.

After a brief hesitation, the boy accepted my hand and squeezed it a little while giving me a hesitant smile in return. He had been working hard on being able to touch people without accidentally turning into a younger version of them. It still ended up happening sometimes when he got overly-excited about something, but he was getting a lot better about that. Still, it felt funny whenever I ended up facing the eight-year-old version of myself. But not nearly as funny as it had been to see the child version of my father. Yeah, that was a real trip. 

“So it looks like you guys have been pretty busy,” I noted as I looked over the table once more. “You mind if I ask what all this stuff is? You know, considering I’m not allowed to eat it.” I added that bit with a wink toward Jehoel, making the boy giggle once more. 

Spark was sitting on the far side of the table. Well, she appeared to be sitting there, anyway. The holographic projection of herself was here, while the real girl was still trapped inside Puriel. Sariel was good, but she wasn’t quite good enough to solve that entire situation in a month. It was going to take a bit more time for them to figure out how to extract the girl without hurting Puriel himself. But if anyone could do it, I was sure Sariel could. Especially when you added in Puriel’s power and the level of resources they were able to throw at the problem. There was no doubt in my mind that Spark would eventually be separated from Puriel. 

Regardless, the black-and-blonde haired girl was sitting next to some sort of radio-looking device with a tiny screwdriver in one hand, adjusting something on the machine. When I asked what they were working on, she sat up a bit, put the tool down, and focused on me. “It’s a secret project to help trap the Whispers when they show up again. A cage.” 

Tabbris gave a quick, eager nod. “Uh huh, uh huh. I asked Spark if she had any ideas, and she didn’t at first, but then Jehoel said something about throwing a net over them.” 

“It happened in Scooby-Doo,” the boy put in, his own face brightening as he mentioned what had apparently become his favorite thing to watch as soon as Popser had introduced it to him. Actually, I remembered my grandfather introducing me to Scooby as well, back when I was even younger than Jehoel. The image of the boy sitting on my grandfather’s lap watching the antics of Mystery Incorporated had been enough to bring a flood of nostalgic memories from those days. I was really glad Popser had someone else to share that with. And that judging by the way he had been smiling the entire time, he was too. 

“Oh, it has the Scooby seal of approval, huh?” Grinning, I gave the boy a thumbs up. “In that case, we’re in good hands.” 

“Especially with Spark designing it,” Tabbris added, practically bouncing in her seat. “She’s got a lot of good ideas now.” 

“I… am better with designing buildings and ships,” the girl in question insisted with a look of embarrassment as she squirmed. “But I think I can do something with this. It’s just the programming work that is… intimidating.” 

“Well, I know a few people who would love to help out,” I replied while taking a seat. “Actually, I was just talking to this girl Shiloh earlier, And I’m pretty sure programming is one of her big things. She was in the Development course last year. Uses a wrist computer and everything. If you’d like, I could ask if she’d come talk it over with you.” 

For her part, Spark only hesitated for a moment before nodding. “That would be nice, thank you. I didn’t want to interrupt our mother’s work to ask for her help with something else. She is… very busy.”

“I’m pretty sure she’d never be too busy to help out with anything you asked for,” I assured her, with a glance toward the other two. “Or anything any of you asked for. But yeah, let’s let her keep working on that. I’ll see if Shiloh’s interested in helping out with this Whisper cage.” 

They agreed, and we cleaned off the table before ordering actual food. For the next twenty minutes, I ate with my sister and her siblings. Well, Spark didn’t actually eat per se. But she did create a sort of holographic meal and act like she was eating just so she wouldn’t be completely left out. Which, judging from the looks that the other two were giving when they thought she wasn’t looking, I was pretty sure made them feel even more determined to help the girl separate from Puriel and get her own body back. Something told me nobody in that family was going to fully rest until that situation was taken care of. Which obviously only involved changing something that had been a thing for hundreds of thousands of years. Clearly no big deal. 

Actually, as it turned out, Sariel wasn’t even on the station at the moment. Apparently, she’d gotten a lead about some spell or something that might have a clue about dealing with the Puriel-Spark situation. So she was out chasing that down. It wasn’t the first lead she’d gotten, and it almost certainly wouldn’t be the last. According to the kids, some of those leads paid off and others didn’t. None held the full answer, of course. If it was that easy, someone would have handled the whole thing by now. It wasn’t like the Seosten didn’t have people working on it. Most of them much better at the science part of things than Kushiel had been. As far as I knew, solving that whole thing was one of their most important projects, alongside their general population problem. Which, come to think of it, was another thing that Kushiel had failed at solving. It seemed like the real takeaway here was that that psycho bitch never should have been put in charge of any project. She shouldn’t have been given authority over a science fair potato clock, let alone that whole thing. 

We were almost done with our meals when a disturbance near the entrance made me turn in my chair to look that way. There were people standing up, a large crowd forming there. I couldn’t see what they were looking at, but obviously something was going on. Everyone was talking at once, too fast and too scattered for me to pick out much in the way of specifics other than how big someone was. 

Frowning a bit, I rose from my seat while murmuring, “What in the…” It looked like people in the crowd were parting, getting out of the way. Or being pushed, I wasn’t sure which. They pulled apart closer and closer to where we were sitting. Tabbris had already moved to stand at my side, with Spark and Jehoel right behind her. 

I caught a glimpse of long black hair through the crowd, barely visible over the heads of a couple tall juvenile orcs. Then Athena appeared, sliding out of the other side of the crowd to put herself in the way. Her voice was a bit exasperated. “I asked you to wait in the other room until we could contact Sariel.” 

“I did wait,” came the heavy, deep male retort. “Then I got bored.”

He was already pushing his way forward, and as the pair of orcs slid to either side, an enormous Seosten man appeared. He was just over seven feet in height, and wore no shirt at all. The man looked like a barbarian, with black hair that went clear to the middle of his back, muscles upon muscles upon muscles, and a sword tattoo across the entire front of his torso, from his navel all the way up nearly to his throat. “Besides,” he continued in that deep voice, “how long am I supposed to sit around before I get to meet…” His eyes fell on Tabbris as she stood next to me, and a broad smile leapt to his face. 

“My daughter!” 

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Class Action 14-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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After all the ridiculousness of that, my next class was Calculus. Which I didn’t mind too much, actually. Sure, math was never going to be my absolute favorite subject, even back in normal, mundane school. But it was important for working out a lot of the more complicated spells. Yeah, some of that stuff required a lot of incredibly involved measurements and calculations about various aspects of the item you were enchanting, where you were, how much it was supposed to affect, and so on and so forth. Math was important for all of that stuff. 

But even more than that, it was a chance to settle down and relax after the chaos of Sinbad’s class. I could sit there at my desk, listen to the teacher (a man named Ambrose Keaton, from Eden’s Garden), and just passively take in his lesson. He was a black guy, only a couple inches taller than me and a little on the heavier side, though I was pretty sure a lot of that was muscle. He wore an old-fashioned set of clothes from the 1800s, with the whole trousers, silk shirt waistcoat, very loose-fitting bow tie, long, loose jacket, and boots. Oh, andit a snazzy-looking top hat, of course. It almost seemed as though he had just stepped out of a period-piece movie or something. Aside from the fact that he wore very modern (and quite cool-looking) sunglasses, and had a distinctly non-period cellphone sticking part of the way out of his front jacket pocket. 

He was also a pretty damn good math teacher. He took the time to explain things pretty well, and related the stuff he was talking about to situations in the real world, rather than leaving it all as numbers on the board. The man had a very engaging personality, unlike the stereotypical math teacher. He knew everyone’s name and a few things about them that he could talk about and relate to the lesson, despite this group apparently only having had a couple classes before this one.  

“So, when you get down to it,” Ambrose was saying as he paced through the aisles between our desks, “calculus is really a building block or a tool that can be used to make almost anything you do that involves numbers much more efficient, or even safe. People designing buildings or bridges use it to determine the precise measurements within the structure, or how much force and weight it can support. You need a firm understanding of calculus to really know how the forces acting on your structure are going to affect it. Or let’s say you’re at a Bystander amusement park and you’ve been put in charge of the concessions. You need to know how many hot dogs, buns, pretzels, cups, napkins, bags of cotton candy, gallons of ice cream, and everything else you need to purchase for a given stretch of time. You buy too little, you’re going to end up with guests who are annoyed and might not come back. That hurts the park’s bottom line. But if you buy too much, that stuff can go bad and you’ve just wasted money. A good understanding of calculus can help you make those choices. It’s not perfect, but it can help.” 

Travis Colby, one of my old Bystander-kin classmates from Crossroads, raised his hand. “Uh, don’t take this the wrong way, but why would we be designing buildings or running a theme park? I mean, we all know what we’re doing after these classes. We’re fighting monsters. And uhh,” he quickly amended, “by monsters, I mean anyone who acts like one or… you know, does monstrous things.” The boy fumbled his words a little at the end before lifting his chin toward the young orc teenager sitting beside him. “The bad guys, I mean.” 

“Yeah,” the orc agreed with a broad smile before holding out his fist. “We squish bad guys.” 

Travis, in turn, gave him a fist bump before looking back to Ambrose. “You know what I mean, dude. It’s not like we’re going to go out in the mundane world and get normal jobs.” 

Ambrose was quiet for a moment after that. He seemed to be considering those words before casually replying, “You can if you want to.” After exhaling slowly, the man walked to Travis’s desk,  though he was clearly addressing all of us. “Here’s what I want to make very clear today, and through the rest of this class. You are allowed to become whatever you want. If you get through this school and go on to become a heroic slayer of evil and champion of all that is good, that’s great. But if you decide to become an artist, or an author, or a chef, or even run the concessions at an amusement park, that’s fine too. Your life… is your life. You do not owe anybody your life, certainly not me or any of your other teachers here at this school. Become what you choose to. Put your life toward what will be most fulfilling to you. For many of you, that will be continuing to actively fight. For others, you may decide to take a backseat to things and only… go into action when absolutely necessary, to protect others you see who are in immediate danger. And that is fine. That is absolutely a valid choice, which no one should fault you for. And even if they do, ignore them. Because again, your life is your life, no one else’s.” 

“That’s not really true for the rest of us, is it?” The new voice came from a corner of the room, where my quiet, anti-social Relukun housemate, Kersel, sat. The wooden boy shifted in his seat as everyone looked at him, his gaze firmly locked on our teacher. “I mean yeah, sure, these guys… your human students, they can do whatever they want. They can go ahead and ignore all of it if they want to. No bark off their back. Some of us have to live in a world where we could be hunted down and killed any day. Oh sure, I’ll go run an amusement park, and pray every day that none of their bloodthirsty, psychotic friends come through, see what I am, and fucking murder me and everyone I care about. That sounds like a great life to have. Sign me up.” 

Several people in the class started to respond, but Ambrose held up a hand for them to stop. He nodded to Kersel then. “You’re absolutely right. It is a lot more dangerous out in the regular world for you and others like you. It shouldn’t be, but that is the reality of the situation. We will fight to change that. Others will simply attempt to create a better world by living in it. Remember what I said before about people who could choose to fight only when they had to? That applies here. Say you do take that job at the amusement park. And then someone comes through and tries to kill you for being what you are. But you don’t have to fight them off alone, because one of the ticket-takers, an accountant in the back office, a guy in a mascot costume, and the woman fixing a broken ride all jump in and help protect you. Because they’re all trained people living their own lives, just like you.” 

That said, the man gazed around to the rest of us. “I’m not saying you forget everything you know. And I’m definitely not saying that all the problems in the world will go away just because you want to live as normal of a life as possible. What I’m saying is that it is not impossible for you to protect one area. It is not wrong for you to choose to put yourself into a normal job, and then step in only when you need to. Find others like you, who can help create a small area within the world where people who would be hunted can be safe. Find those who don’t set off the Stranger sense and put them at the entrance so they can warn those who do when there’s trouble coming. Create escape routes and plan for problems. Work together to create the sort of world that all people can live in. You fix the world by living in it, by making it better so that those who would drag people down into the filth where they thrive are left behind. You will never truly beat that sort of ideology by hitting it with a sword. You beat it by creating an environment in which it cannot exist.”  

With that, he tapped one of the nearby desks a couple times pointedly. “That, my friends, is what this class is about. That is what calculus is. It is using what we know, to calculate what we want. It is not simply passively accepting the reality of the situation, but learning how to use that reality to create incredible things. Math is the world and everything in it. Learn to use that math, make it work for you, and you might not be able to build a better world. But you can certainly build a better piece of it.

“Now, let’s talk about a man named Pythagoras. Maybe you’ll even get to meet him someday.”

*******

After that class, it was time for lunch. Which I had in the cafeteria with Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Roxa, Doug, and May. Most of us were eagerly devouring the meals in front of us, after hours of classwork, while Doug questioned May about anything she might’ve known about the so-called Whispers, as well as the Pale Ship and the original Tabbris. Yeah, he wasn’t exactly going to let that sort of thing go, especially not when he had a Seosten right there to interrogate. 

Unfortunately, May didn’t really know much about any of it. Nothing about the Whispers, of course. And not much as far as the other two things went. She just said that it had never been a subject she was interested in. Nor was April, apparently, though she was busy helping one of their classmates with something back in one of the science labs. 

Stabbing a fork into a potato, Doug asked, “Do you know anyone in your group who might know more about that stuff? He hesitated before adding, “I mean, it seems to me like other Seosten tend to ignore you guys a lot. You blend into the background whenever they aren’t putting you to work. Plus, you like… work for one of their big scientists.” 

“We will not betray Cahethal,” May immediately put in, sitting up a bit straighter in her chair. 

Roxa quickly spoke up. “He’s not talking about betraying anyone, just sharing any information any of you might have about this situation that could maybe lead to answers for everyone. I mean, your boss would probably like it if you found out more about the Pale Ship, or these Whispers, right? She seems like the type to want an explanation for all that.”   

Doug nodded. “What she said. I’m not saying you should keep anything a secret from your boss. Go ahead and tell her whatever you want. But it seems like sharing information would be the best way to go for all of us, you know?” 

I spoke up. “Yeah, I mean, one side having part of the story, the other side having another part, and nobody sharing anything is basically a recipe for neither side to ever figure out the truth.” 

“If this truce is going to go beyond a year, into a real alliance,” Avalon quietly reminded the girl, “we need to get used to sharing things with each other. And trusting each other.” 

May looked at her in silence for a moment. From the look on her face, she understood just what it meant for Avalon to say something like that, given everything the Seosten had put her through. Not only her, but her entire bloodline. After all the pain and death they were responsible for, just within Avalon’s own life, her being the one to say we needed to work together meant a lot. May clearly understood that, taking a few seconds to let it actually sink in before speaking carefully. “You have a point.” She paused after admitting that, then gave a short nod. “I believe there may be one member of the Calendar who knows something, but I won’t say anything else until I speak with them and see if they are comfortable with talking about it. Is that acceptable?” 

Doug had just started to agree that it was, when Shiloh approached. “Is what acceptable? Hey, May.” She offered the Seosten girl a smile, before shifting a little awkwardly as though realizing she had just interrupted something and suddenly wondering if that was bad. 

“Hey, Shy Two,” Shiori immediately spoke up while gesturing. “Come on, sit with us.” 

Shiloh immediately snickered with a look of visible relief that crossed her face before she stepped over to take the seat across from her (and next to May). “Thanks, Shy One,” she cheerfully noted, setting her plate down. 

“They figured out they both have the same nickname,” Columbus informed me. “It’s been a lot of this ever since.” 

Roxa held up a hand while rapidly chewing the enormous mouthful of burger she had just taken. It was so much meat her cheeks bulged out, and took several seconds for the girl to manage to get it down. Finally, she spoke up. “At least Shy makes sense for someone named Shiloh. Shiori is like… She-Or-Eee. How do you get Shy out of that?” 

Shiori shrugged as everyone looked to her for an explanation, while gesturing toward Columbus. “Ask my brother over there. He started it. Then it just stuck.” 

Columbus, in turn, made a clearly exaggerated harrumphing sound. “Come on, it’s not that weird. People have shortened versions of their names that don’t phonetically line up perfectly all the time.” He waved it off then. “Anyway, someone tell Shy Two what we’re talking about.” 

So, I did just that. Over the next couple of minutes, I gave the other girl a quick rundown about the situation, telling her as much as I could in that brief time without getting too confusing or detailed about it. Honestly, it still felt strange to talk so openly about stuff that I would have had to obsessively keep secret the year before. I barely knew Shiloh (though clearly she had spent some more time with the others here while I had been gone), and yet I could just… talk about that stuff with her. I didn’t have to be paranoid that she was going to expose what we knew. That ship had sailed. 

It was definitely a different experience, but I wasn’t complaining. God, was I ever not complaining. I could not even begin to describe how much better it felt to be able to just talk openly about this stuff, without using a bunch of privacy spells and being paranoid that any given person might be listening in. We could just tell Shiloh the truth. Sure, she might lack some of the context or be confused about a lot. But we could explain it. That was just… awesome. 

Once I was done, and the others had piped up with their own input, Shiloh herself seemed to take a few long seconds processing the whole thing. Finally, she offered, “So the adults–I mean the older adults, they’re looking for that Occillo troll guy and whoever he was working with?” 

I nodded. “Yeah, they found out where the guy was living on that station, at least back then. They’re gonna send some people to check it out. I mean, they’re probably not dumb enough to still be there, but maybe there’s some clues about who the other guy is or where they went.” 

With a curious, thoughtful frown, the shaggy-haired brunette offered a hesitant, “Why don’t you ask around the station here about him? I mean, a lot of the people here come from out in that space, or at least they’ve spent a lot of time there. Or even just know people who have. This guy, he’s a genius-level troll Indiana Jones explorer. That has to stand out even in a giant universe. Maybe someone around here has heard of him. At least enough to get more information, you know?” She paused slightly before adding, “You don’t have to keep everything secret anymore, you might as well take advantage of that and find out what people know.” 

Yeah, she definitely had a point there. Maybe no one would actually know the guy, but on the off-chance that they did, it was worth asking about. “Besides,” I put in, “even if no one’s heard of him, they might know about that station, or even have someone there who could talk to whoever gets sent out to it.”

Shiloh seemed relieved that we weren’t dismissing what she said, offering me a quick, slightly nervous smile. “Yeah, just like that. See, you can just, you know, use what you’ve got around here.” After another brief hesitation, she offered, “I could ask a few people about that if you want.” Quickly, the girl explained, “I’ve sorta been talking to a lot of people around the station for that book of stories I wanna write. You know, the stories about other worlds? So, yeah, if you want, I could see if any of those people I’ve talked to, um, know anything.” She was shifting a bit uncomfortable from the attention of everyone, looking down as she poked at the food on her plate. “Or I can just leave it alone.” She mumbled that last part under her breath. 

“Dude, are you kidding?” I immediately insisted. “If you’ve got contacts who could maybe help find out anything about this guy, go for it. No way are we going to turn down actual help.” 

The others made sounds of agreement with that, before May noted, “It would be a waste to ignore a potential resource.” 

“Yeah?” Shiloh looked up, offering a slightly… well, shy smile at the Seosten girl as her uneven bangs covered part of her eyes. “Do you want to maybe walk around with me and talk to them? It might be nice to have some company, you know. Or umm, in case I forget any of the details. You’re–you have a really good memory and all. I mean, I could write it down, or record it, or–it’s no big deal. Don’t worry about it, you don’t have to come with me.” Her head shook rapidly to dismiss the thought.

May hesitated before offering a flat, “I am Seosten and a… I am affected by Anima Catenata.” 

The rest of us, including Shiloh, looked at each other in confusion before Columbus asked, “Anima what now?”

“Chained soul,” I mentally translated after a second. “Oh, wait, is that what you call… you know, SPS?” 

The Asian-looking Seosten gave a very slight nod. “That is the formal, technical name for the condition from long ago, before such… prejudice was associated with it. When the condition was being diagnosed. It is rarely used now, simply because there is no need to. We are not Seosten with the condition of Anima Catenata. We are simply Mendacia, to them.”  

With that, she looked at Shiloh. “That is what I was saying. Other species here may dislike me for being too Seosten. Seosten themselves may dislike me for not being Seosten enough. Having me walk with you to these discussions may be more of a handicap than an aid.” 

My mouth opened to say something, but Shiloh beat me to the punch. “Dude, they’ll get over it. And if they don’t, screw them. This whole school is supposed to be about learning to work together and accept others, right? I mean, that’s what the entire truce is about too.” 

“That… is true,” May agreed. “Very well, if you like, I shall accompany you to speak to your contacts.” 

“Good,” Avalon announced, “and now that that’s settled, we can talk about what else is going on this afternoon.”    

Blinking a couple times, I echoed, “What else is going on this afternoon?” 

She, in turn, offered me a slightly feral smile. “You’ve gotten away without training long enough.” 

“Oh.” Flushing a little, I insisted. “I promise I did a lot of training the whole time. Live action, very intense training. Lots of it.” 

“Good,” she replied, clearly not dissuaded in the slightest. “Then it won’t be a shock to your system to get back to something a little more organized.” 

With an audible snicker, Roxa spoke up. “Be afraid, Flick. She’s been planning out how to run you ragged and work through that stamina of yours for awhile. Something about making sure you’re ready the next time anything bad happens.” 

“Yup,” Shiori confirmed. “And she had the rest of us help her perfect the system.” 

“Oh boy,” I managed in a slightly weak voice. “I guess the welcome home vacation is officially over, huh?” Still, despite my words, I met Valley’s gaze and the two of us smiled at one another. This, I knew, was precisely how Avalon showed that she cared. By working me to the bone. The more she cared about someone, the more she pushed them to work harder. She demonstrated affection through being a demanding taskmaster. 

And lucky me, as I found out over the next couple hours, she was apparently feeling very affectionate. 

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Class Action 14-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Okay, right, right.” Felix was clearly looking over the map, carefully scanning all the possible paths and comparing it to the details written out on the back. “Hang on, just a second.” 

“Take your time,” I murmured. “I mean, read fast, but read effectively. Read–gonna shut up now.” To distract myself then, I slowly looked around the space we were in. It was pitch-black aside from where my headlight pointed. For a moment, I covered the light with a hand and switched my vision over to see through infrared, checking for any heat signatures. There were a few spots, but nothing that looked like a living creature. Not that that was definitive, since even though I was sure Sinbad would play fair by giving creatures that were supposed to be warm the appropriate heat to give off, there were plenty of things out there that wouldn’t. 

“Hey,” Shiloh started, pointing up toward the corner. “Does that thing look like a camera to you?”

Switching my vision back and looking that way while moving my hand off the light, I saw what she was indicating. A little black dome with a red light darting around. Then it centered on us. I lowered my gaze to look at my own chest, seeing a dot of red there. “No,” I blurted while jerking to the side and lashing out with a foot to kick Shiloh away, “I think it’s a turret!” 

In the background, Felix was saying something about there being no turret on the map. And yet, the very much extant turret had already opened fire. Several literal spears went shooting through the water toward us, passing right through the spot where I had been an instant earlier. With my boost going, I could see that they were dull-tipped, with some kind of electronic thing on the end that would probably alert if they hit someone and how much damage it would’ve done. Whatever the case, the turret was definitely trying to shoot the two of us. 

“Distract it!” Shiloh called out, already swimming to the right to avoid the next spear as it narrowly missed her foot. I wasn’t sure what it would’ve done with her armor, but probably best not to test it if we had any choice in the matter.

Right, so apparently I was supposed to distract the thing, somehow. Thinking quickly, I created a portal between myself and the shielded turret thing. “Hey!” I shouted, as though that would matter to an inanimate object, “over here, stupid!” With that, I drove my staff through the portal to smack into the thing as hard as I could (which wasn’t nearly as hard as usual thanks to being underwater, but I was still pretty damn strong). The staff rebounded off the clearly heavily-reinforced dome while barely leaving a scratch on it. But it did at least make that red light twist over toward me. Quickly, I disabled the portal, just in case the turret got a bright idea to use it. “Uhh, consider its attention got!” I called out, even as the thing fired three incredibly fast spears at me. The first one froze partway to me as I focused on pausing its momentum. The other two kept coming, but I didn’t move out of the way. Instead, I focused on slowing one of them down by using the Fomorian Ape-Croc’s power to increase the amount of force needed to move it. I had frozen the first spear using the Lemevwik’s pause/rewind power, and slowed down the second one with the Ape-Croc’s ability. Which left the third spear. That one was coming full-speed. But I was boosting enough to twist out of the way, catching the thing as it began to shoot past me. My hand caught the shaft, and I twisted back just before the slowed spear managed to reach me. With the captured spear in one hand, I lashed out to knock the new one out of the way. Which came just in time before the pause on the last spear ran out and it came shooting at me again. But by that time, I was already throwing my actual staff that way, enlarging it just enough that the spear rebounded off the end and went spinning away while I recalled the staff back to my grasp. 

The turret was getting ready to fire again, but I’d bought Shiloh enough time to get herself into position. She extended her arm with the computer, sending a beam of silver energy from that to the wall-mounted weapon. There was a brief silver glow from the thing before it stopped. Then the red light flicked around a few times before settling on the nearby wall. 

“Got it, I got it!” Shiloh called, swimming closer. “It’s okay, the thing won’t shoot anymore. Uhh, Felix?” 

The response was immediate, “Yeah, apparently there’s still some unlabeled dangers in there. Sinbad says it’s to simulate reality or whatever. You know, cuz sometimes stuff happens you can’t plan for. That’s what he says, anyway.” 

“Right,” I replied while shaking my head. “So we’ll be even more careful. Did you figure out where we’re going next?” 

“Damn straight I did,” she assured us. “It’s the uhh, one in the floor that’s… nearest to the entrance where you came in. But don’t go yet. You have to go when the sun is behind a cloud. Err, you know, when the artificial sun is behind a cloud, not the sun we’re actually living inside of. Hang on a second. Get close to it and I’ll tell you when to go. Just be fast, and don’t pay attention to the voice that’s gonna be coming from a couple tunnels to the right as you go. No matter what it says.”

Go when the sun was behind a cloud, and ignore a voice coming out of tunnels? I looked at Shiloh and the two of us shrugged before swimming down closer to the right entrance. Yeah, something told me it was going to be a long and eventful journey to get to where this ship was. 

******

I was right. The next twenty minutes or so were pretty damn chock-full. Between all the dangers that Felix could tell us about, and the ones that we just had to find on our own, this exercise definitely wasn’t boring. Sinbad had made sure of that. Maybe a little too sure, but hey. I was enjoying finding ways around his little traps, and just generally stretching my skills in an environment that wasn’t really life or death. It was fun. Truly, genuinely fun. I even let the sharks out a few at a time as we went to let them scout ahead or watch behind us. They had a lot of fun with that, and were clearly taking the exercise very seriously. 

Eventually, we were guided down through the bottom of the maze and into what turned out to be a massive cave system beneath the lake floor. Which raised a few questions about what it was doing there, but I assumed it had been built in for training sequences like this. Or just for underwater-based people to potentially live, maybe? 

Either way, we made it into the huge underwater cavern, and saw the vague outline of what sort of looked like a ship in the distance. Sort of like a ship, but there was something odd about it that I couldn’t put together from here. Seeing that, we stopped and looked at each other before I asked, “Hey Felix, we see the ship. Anything we need to worry about between here and there?” 

“Nah, not that I can see,” came the response. “But there’s plenty of things to worry about on the ship itself. Not that I have any specifics about that, just lots of bad things. So be careful.” 

“Yeah, I figured.” With that, I took the time to release the last of my sharks from their vial so they could all swim out around us. Once they were ready, I nodded to Shiloh so we could set off. With the shiver keeping pace, the two of us descended deeper and deeper toward that vague ship outline. And as we got closer, I gradually realized what had been so odd about it from a distance. 

It wasn’t a ship. Well, it was. It was definitely a ship. But it wasn’t a boat. It was not a water ship. It was a spaceship. Or a mock-up of one. Or maybe just a broken one that didn’t fly anymore anyway. The point was, this was a two-hundred meter long metal spaceship shaped somewhat vaguely like what we’d expect a sailing ship to look like, except the ‘masts’ were actually gun-towers. And, obviously, there was no upper deck for people to stand on. The whole thing was enclosed. It looked sort of like a submarine with those four mast-like guntowers sticking out of the top, and a wide V-shaped ‘glass’ viewing port at the front. It wasn’t really glass, of course. Ships like this had some kind of incredibly strong, yet transparent ‘windows’ that could stand up to just as much damage as the rest of the armor. 

Or rather, it could have stood up to that kind of damage. But as we got closer to the sunken spaceship, I saw that most of that transparent front viewport was gone. There were six large holes punched through the ship at random spots, leaving just a few jagged remains behind. One of those spots was in the viewport. They looked an awful lot like something had taken a few big bites out of it. For a moment, I wondered if the thing had been in the water or in space when that happened. We didn’t know if this thing was a real ship that was damaged this badly in its normal course of operations and repurposed for this exercise, or if it had been specifically broken like that just for what we were doing. Looking at it from up closer, I was pretty certain that Sinbad had not built it from scratch. A wooden sailing ship, maybe. But this? No way. This thing had clearly been a real, flying spaceship at some point. The only question was whether the big bite mark in the side  that had torn through all that thick metal armor had happened in the course of battle, or was added for flavor down here. After all, I had seen and/or heard about plenty of Fomorian ‘ship’ creatures that could probably pull off something like that. Terrifying as it was to think about. But then, literally everything involving the Fomorians was terrifying to think about. 

Right, so we needed to go inside. It felt like the easiest way in would be through the broken viewport at the front, or through one of those six big holes. And I had no doubt that Sinbad had even more tricks and traps in store depending on which entrance we happened to use. But the point of the exercise wasn’t to fight monsters or survive traps. It was to get as much treasure as we could, and bring it back in a couple dimensional-storage bags we’d both been given. So, rather than swim closer, I reached out to touch Shiloh’s arm to make her stop. While she looked at me, I murmured, “Let’s play our own game with this thing, not his.” 

With that, I reached into one of the impossibly-deep pockets in the Seosten bodysuit, producing a small, blank stone. One of Herbie’s brothers. It took me a few seconds to remember the exact spell I was thinking of, but I finally got it, using the instant-inscription power to put a special rune on my rock. Then I triggered the spell and gave the thing a toss through the water toward the sunken ship. 

Shiloh and I both watched as the rock began to glow greenish white. Then it took off, and I kicked after it while calling for Shiloh to follow me. She was clearly curious, but simply followed while the rock led us toward the ship. Not to any of the openings, but more toward the back. 

“You guys okay?” Felix’s voice piped up. 

“All good,” I confirmed. “We’re just… finding our way.” 

As we neared the ship, I saw something move in the nearest of the openings. Even as I was looking that way to see what it was, the thing came rushing out at us. It looked like a scorpion with two bladed tails and four flippers (two on each side) rather than legs. Oh, and it was spitting some sort of gas at us through the water. I was pretty sure it was supposed to be either poisonous or acidic.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to worry about it, because the water scorpion thing didn’t get anywhere near us before Brody and Quint both slammed into the thing from the side, each biting a flipper off. The creature twisted, stinger-tails lashing out. But it never got the chance to hit them before Princess Cuddles rose up from beneath the thing and ate half of it in one gulp. Of course, the thing vanished as soon as it was ‘killed.’ Just like other things we’d faced inside the maze had. And now just as then, even though I’d explained things to my sharks, I had the feeling they were still very confused when that happened. Not to mention hungry. I was going to have to feed them real food soon, because I was pretty sure they were getting tired of delicious-looking meals vanishing.

Belatedly, I noticed that Shiloh had moved closer to the hole in the ship, almost far enough to be out of range of my headlamp. She was staring that way, before kicking her way back. Once close enough, she spoke in a whisper. “There’s more of those things. I think it’s a nest.” 

“Well, thankfully,” I replied, “we’re not going in that way. Or any of those ways. Come on.” Rather than going immediately, however, I took a moment to thank the sharks for jumping in. My hands ran over their sides as I praised all of them for being such good guard sharks. Then I kicked out again, and we continued in the direction of the glowing rock. It had stopped a bit ahead of us once we were far enough away, then resumed moving once we caught up. 

“Dude, what is that spell?” Shiloh asked while swimming alongside me. “Are you sure this is a good idea? We’re not even in the ship yet, and we’re kinda being timed with this whole thing.” 

“Trust me,” I promised her, “just keep following the glowing rock. It won’t let us down.” At least, I really hoped it wouldn’t. I hadn’t exactly done the spell a lot, though I was reasonably confident about it. It was one of the bits of utility magic that Shyel (the Chayyiel copy in my head) had taught me over the past few months. Not exactly a spell that would change the course of a battle (probably), but she had told me that you never knew what little thing could be useful at some point. I wasn’t sure ‘winning a class competition put on by Sinbad’ was what she’d had in mind, but hey. Utilizing what I had available did sound like something she’d want me to do. 

We followed that stone away from the hole where the scorpion-things were lurking, following the intact surface of the ship. Shiloh looked a bit uncertain still, glancing back now and then toward the openings. I was sure she was calculating just how badly we would fail this exercise if I was wrong and we hadn’t even made it into the ship before our time was up. Yet, despite those doubts, she followed me anyway. I wasn’t exactly sure why, given the girl barely knew me.

Whatever the reason, she stayed close while we went after the glowing stone. It had stopped moving by that point, sinking down to attach itself against one specific part of the ship. It didn’t look any different from any other part, just a random section of undamaged hull. But I trusted the spell, swimming down that way while giving a quick glance around to make sure we weren’t about to be ambushed. The coast was clear. Something told me Sinbad was keeping most of the surprises at the entrances or spread through the interior of the ship, not out here. 

Even so, I still looked toward my sharks and told them to patrol and keep an eye out. Which they did, immediately launching into a coordinated system of having one shark near us at all times, switching on and off with the rest, who would go on elaborate paths through the water to watch for anything approaching. They even used the buddy system, every shark constantly in sight of at least one other. It was amazing to see them do all that like it was instinct. 

As soon as I saw what they were doing, my attention returned to the stone. Shiloh was flipping her attention between staring at that, at me, and at the sharks. She clearly wasn’t sure where to look next. Her voice was uncertain. “Okay, so now can you tell me what we’re doing over here?” 

“Yeah,” Felix piped up. “Can you tell me what you guys are doing too?” 

“Just gotta check one thing,” I assured her. “You play a lot of video games, right? You know that thing where people will cheat and skip over most of the level? It’s like that. Or it should be.” Belatedly, I added, “Oh, and uhh, we’re probably about to see a ghost so don’t freak out.” 

That said, while Shiloh was still giving a double-take, I focused for a moment and reached out toward a familiar presence. I had a lot of them in the back of my mind by now, but I extended my attention to one in particular. While doing so, I made sure to make it a gentle touch, a request rather than a demand. One he could refuse if he wanted. I wasn’t forcing anything.

A moment later, I felt a sense of acceptance before Jorsher appeared. After Ahmose had allowed himself to fade away, Jorsher was the most senior of the ghosts that I knew. Well, not counting Rahanvael, but I was going to let her rest. After all, she’d spent an indescribably long time waiting to have a chance to stop her brother’s reign of terror and genocide, culminating in helping to kill him only a few days ago. I wasn’t about to call her out for something like this. 

The humanoid man with the overly large eyes appeared and, despite my warning, Shiloh still jumped a bit. Or jolted, at least. My sharks didn’t seem to care. I wondered if that was because of their connection to me. Huh. Something to look into. 

“You requested assistance, Lady Chambers?” he asked, before looking around. “Do you require aid in returning to the surface?” 

My head shook quickly. “No, I uhh, it’s a school project thing. Could you poke your head down through here and tell us what you see?” 

Yeah, he gave me a brief odd look at that. But, in the end, the ghost offered a minute shrug before following my request. He poked his head through the hull of the ship and was still for a moment. Shiloh used that time to hiss at me, “You really are a strong Necromancer.” 

Coughing (also a strange sensation underwater, just like snorting had been), I nodded. “Yeah, I guess so. Anyway, if I’m right–” 

At that moment, Jorsher brought his head out and looked at me. “It is a sealed room, protected by various magical traps on the doorway and filled with buckets of gold and jewels.” 

“Yes!” I pumped the air–err, water. “The ‘find gold’ spell worked! Told you I knew what I was doing. Ignore the part just now where I was super-excited at the fact that it worked.” 

“Find–why do you even know that spell? We never learned that in class,” Shiloh blurted.

“Long story,” I replied. “We just need to get that gold out of there. Actually, just in case…” I looked over to my sharks, still diligently patrolling the surrounding water. “Okay, guys, I’m about to go in. Can you watch over Shiloh for me?” 

They obediently moved closer to Shiloh, and the other girl offered Simpson, our current personal guardshark, a hesitant smile before asking me, “Do you have a phase through solid spaceship metal spell too?”  

“Better,” I replied before looking at Jorsher. “Do you mind?” 

“I will require assistance,” was his response. 

He was right, so I summoned another volunteer ghost from among those who were still waiting to be taken to a place where they could say goodbye and fade away on their own terms. This one was an older human guy named Clyde. As soon as he appeared, I produced another stone from my pocket, one that had already been prepared with an enchantment. “Could you guys hold this?” 

The two ghosts each reached out to take the stone, while I used the command word, “Mar’ah.” Immediately, both of them went from being mostly translucent, to being reflective. Clyde floated down through the hull, disappearing into the ship. Then I grabbed my treasure bag, passing it to Shiloh. “Be ready to start stuffing both of those,” I noted, before kicking out. I swam straight into and through Jorsher, using my transport through reflective surfaces power. 

I emerged through Clyde, appearing, as promised, in a smallish room. It looked like some sort of lower-ranked officer’s cabin. Something told me that Sinbad had avoided putting treasure in obvious places like the bridge, or the captain’s quarters, or even in the cargo bay specifically to mess with people making those assumptions. 

I could see some of the spells on the doorway. I had no idea what they did, but not triggering them seemed like a good idea. So, I focused on the other obvious thing in the room. Treasure. There were, as promised, several large buckets filled with treasure. It was just waiting there to be grabbed. But, of course, I did not immediately grab them. Instead, I inspected the buckets and found the trap spells that sneaky sneaky Sinbad had placed, clearly expecting them to be triggered by students who were super-happy to finally be at the treasure, tired from fighting their way through everything, and in a rush to escape. I took the time to carefully disable the spells, using what Shyel, Tabbris, Athena, and more had taught me. 

Finally, I started passing the buckets out through my ghost-mirror portals, telling Shiloh to hurry up and dump the contents in the bags while I kept one eye on the door into the room just in case there were roving ‘creatures.’ 

But it was all clear, and before long we had everything in the room. I came back out through the ghosts, thanked both of them profusely while again promising that I would help them get closure as soon as I’d had a chance to rest and regroup for a little while, then dismissed them. 

That done, Shiloh and I looked at each other. She gave me a thumbs up, holding the bags, which looked just as empty as before but were actually packed with treasure. “Ready to get out of here?” Her hand hovered over the badge with the teleport spell attached to it. 

In answer, I recalled my sharks before nodding as I put my own hand near my badge. “Yeah. Let’s go, before Sinbad has a bunch of holographic ghost pirates start crewing that ship to come after us.” 

I could hear the man himself shouting about what a good idea that was all the way through Felix’s communicator. 

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Class Action 14-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Pushing aside all those thoughts about how amazing this not being a life or death situation was, I focused on activating my air-production and water communication spells. And boy was it still weird to breathe water. Seriously, it was one thing to hold my breath for a long time, but magically breathing in the water itself? Yeah, it was just… a hard thing to accept reflexively. I had to stop holding my breath and just… let the water flow in and out. Somehow, it provided oxygen without drowning me. Magic was weird. 

At the same time, I looked around. My shiver was already on their way over, and I greeted them cheerfully. For a minute, I took the time to say good morning to them all, giving each shark the rubs and kisses they deserved. Then I got them to line up in a circle and explained what was going on. To be fair, I still wasn’t exactly sure how intelligent they were, but they tended to do what I asked, and they were definitely smarter than, say, a dog. I just wasn’t sure where the line was between their actual intelligence and them simply doing what I wanted. It was a little blurry there. 

In either case, whether because they understood or because me putting what I wanted into words helped my power direct them subconsciously, explaining things to my sharks tended to help. So I spent a couple of minutes doing that, making as certain as I could that they knew this was all a game and nothing was really going to hurt them, before sending the whole shiver scattering away from me. They would come when called. And in what was, in my opinion, incredibly adorable, all of them made sure to swim away from the place where the sunken boat was supposed to be so they wouldn’t accidentally cheat by seeing it too soon. 

Smiling to myself when I realized what they were doing, I shook my head before speaking to Felix and Shiloh through the badge. Letting them know I was on my way, I struck out, swimming around the ship underwater until I saw the marked off (with buoys) area near the bow where we were supposed to wait. Then I rose up, breaking the surface just in time to meet up with Shiloh as the other girl dove in next to me. She wasn’t wearing a swimming suit. Instead, her body was covered from toes to throat with what looked like pristine crystal armor. It was very thin, looking more like a second skin, and gleamed in the artificial sunlight. I could see various rainbow designs flickering through bits of it. 

“Wow,” I remarked once she had surfaced and was treading water next to me. “Shiny.” 

Shaking that shaggy hair out of her eyes now that it was wet, Shiloh grinned. “Thanks. It absorbs energy and redirects it. I think you have a power like that.” 

“Yeah, but I didn’t get the spiffy armor to go with,” I replied. “And something tells me you don’t have to focus on it every time you want it to work.” 

“Nope,” she confirmed. “The armor can only take so much, but it’s set and forget.” 

Before I could respond to that, Sinbad leaned out over the railing to look down at us. “You two ready?!” When we called that we were and gave him a pair of thumbs up, he looked over to where Felix was perched on the railing, map in hand. “You ready?” 

“Now that you showed me which way was up on this thing, yup!” she cheerfully replied before waving down at us. “We’re all good!” 

“Excellent!” Sinbad offered that gold, silver, and ruby smile once more. “Dive, for treasure and glory!” 

Looking at one another, Shiloh and I each shrugged before doing exactly as he requested. We dove under the water and set off together. Time to get through the maze, find the ship, and bring back any of the treasure we could find. 

There obviously wasn’t enough time in the two hour class for everyone to have a turn, even in three-person groups and six different mazes/ships. But anyone who didn’t get to go today would get a chance next time. Sinbad had, of course, made it clear he would be changing the mazes and the ships enough that asking those of us who went today for hints wouldn’t help at all. And might even hinder, if it made people go in with certain expectations. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but he’d cackled maniacally while saying it, so I was fairly confident he almost wanted someone to try cheating that way.

In any case, Shiloh and I swam toward the giant stone structure. We were next to each other,  just far enough apart that we wouldn’t smack one another while going deeper. On the way, my sharks came swimming in on all sides. I had a feeling their presence made Shiloh a little nervous, so I turned a bit to her and began to gesture at each shark, introducing them by name. That seemed to make her feel a little bit better. But I was pretty sure she still wasn’t exactly completely at ease. Not yet, anyway. I had confidence in my sharks’ ability to charm the girl before this was over. 

The sharks formed an honor guard around us, keeping an eye out for anything dangerous. Or, well, ‘dangerous’ as far as the exercise went. And so we continued like that, flanked on all sides by my sharks while heading down to where we could see the vague outline of the enormous building that held the maze we were supposed to work our way through. 

It was just like the others I’d caught a glimpse of on the opposite side, and I very briefly wondered why Sinbad would make a point of not wanting me to see this ahead of time when all I would see was the giant walls. Then I remembered, duh, people with vision powers who could see through those walls. 

Even once we’d reached the building, we had to dive deeper to get to the entrance itself. Those were the rules that Sinbad had been quite firm on. No going into the maze through some other way. Everyone had to start at the entrance. And once you left the building going back toward the ship, you were done. So no going in through the door just to fulfill the letter of the rule, then going back out and finding a shortcut. 

Yeah, I had a feeling Sinbad had a lot of practice with that sort of cheating. And every other kind.

On the way down, I glanced back over my shoulder, past the sharks bringing up the rear and toward the shape of the ship on the surface. “You hear us, Felix?” 

“Yup!” came the response. “Crystal clear. You guys just keep heading down. Oh, when you get to the entrance, don’t go right inside. There’s bad things that could happen if you do. Eesh, right at the start?” Her voice rose, and I realized she was calling out to the man himself. “Dude, you really don’t take it easy with this stuff!” 

Shiloh and I glanced at one another, both smirking a little. Up here, it was light enough that we could still see each other unaided. That was at about a hundred feet, which was already deep enough that a normal SCUBA diver would have to deal with something called the bends if they went up too fast. Basically, the pressure underwater was high enough that if you went back up out of that pressure too fast, it made bubbles of nitrogen and other gases build up and cause a lot of problems. Even fatal ones. So you had to stop for a little bit at certain depths and stay there until your body adjusted before going higher. 

Thankfully, in our case, a mix of the water-breathing spell we were already using, our own general regeneration/healing powers, and an extra spell coin Sinbad had handed over at the start of class for us to activate on our way up, we wouldn’t have to deal with that. Not that I really would have objected to staying down longer with my sharks, but I did have another class to go to after this. Calculus, which was gonna be a weird thing to jump to. 

As we got deeper, the light began to fade. It got dark enough that I called out through the water for Shiloh to stop. As the girl looked at me, I reached into one of the nearly-invisible pockets on the bodysuit, my fingers slipping into the much-larger-on-the-inside space. Fumbling a bit until I found what I was looking for, I came out with a headband. While the other girl looked at me curiously, I touched my fingers against the band and created a simple light spell rune. Activating it made a powerful flashlight-like beam project outward from that spot of the headband, and I put it on. Now it functioned like a headlamp, and I could see Shiloh’s eyes widen with realization. 

“You want one?” I asked, indicating my pouch. Thanks to everything that had already happened, I’d spent a couple hours the night before filling up my bags and pouches with all sorts of stuff I might need. It really paid to be prepared.

Shiloh, however, shook her head before pointing at her eyes. As I watched, they began to glow faintly purple. “Dark vision!” she called. “It’s as bright as the park at noon down here.”  

Grinning, I gave her a thumbs up. “Useful! All I’ve got for that is infrared, which doesn’t really help navigate underwater where everything’s equally wet and cool.”  

“Still pretty great,” she assured me. Then a brief pause before the girl added, “You’ve got a lot of powers, you know?” 

“Dude, doesn’t she, though?” That was Felix, sounding like she was lounging back somewhere. Probably lying on the railing of the ship, holding the map up. “How do you even keep them straight? Between all the powers and those spells you know right off the top of your head without even thinking about it…” 

Flushing just a little, I shook my head. “Believe me, it’s not a big deal. The stuff you have to do to get that kind of boost…” Pausing, I grimaced before gesturing to the ship we were supposed to be heading for. “Let’s just get in there, find the ship, and see what we can grab.”  

From the look on her face, I had the feeling that Shiloh wanted to say something more about all that. But she just nodded finally before starting to swim that way once more. Something told me the subject would come up later. If not with her, then with others. They were really curious about what sort of things I’d been through, especially if they weren’t really close to me and didn’t know the whole story. I could only imagine what they were going to think when word about Persephone started to spread. I just… yeah, maybe that whole newspaper article thing I’d come up with earlier was an even better idea than I’d thought. I needed to get my story out there in my own words. 

We reached the entrance soon enough after that. My earlier impression was holding up. This place was like a skyscraper that had been turned on its side, and the door we were going through was directly on what would have been the bottom if it was rightside up. 

The two of us began to tread water right by the entrance while Shiloh told Felix we were there. The cat-girl, in turn, promptly told us to look toward the top left of the doorway. We were supposed to be careful though, and not touch it, or go through the doorway. So, we got closer and peered over the doorway until we found a marking that looked like a four-leaf clover with squiggles coming out of each ‘leaf.’ Once we reported that, Felix very deliberately led us through the instructions on disarming that spell. Apparently, the deal was that she had a list of spells on the back, with pictures and instructions of how to disarm them. On the front of the map, all she had was markings of ‘dangerous spell here.’ She had to get us to describe the spells we found correctly to her so she could find the right one on the back. And there were some that were really similar, but had very different disarming methods. So yeah, we had to be very specific. It was all about telling her exactly what we saw and testing the way we all communicated. Not to mention making sure none of us acted too quickly. 

So, we disarmed the rune fairly easily once it was described properly for Felix. Just to be on the safe side, Shiloh and I double checked the rest of the doorway. Even though the map said it was clear, we didn’t want to take any chances. But sure enough, we couldn’t find anything. Shiloh even used one of her own powers, which made her fingers light up with a faint white glow, while running them along the doorway. Apparently if there was any active hostile magic within a couple feet of them, they would change colors based on what type of magic it was. But her fingers remained white. Between that and Felix’s map, I was satisfied. 

There was, however, one more thing I had to deal with. Turning toward my sharks, I announced, “Okay guys, I know this isn’t fair, but you’ve got to go inside for a little while. There’s no room in this part for you, and we don’t want you to end up being claustrophobic. I promise, I’ll bring you out soon.” With that, I recalled them to their private pool area in my special vial, before nodding to Shiloh so we could move on. 

We passed through the doorway together and were finally inside the maze. It was, as advertised… a maze. Yeah, shocking. Wait, no, amazing. Shiori would kill me if I didn’t jump for that pun, even in my own head. 

We were swimming in a narrow corridor. It was just wide enough for the two of us to swim side by side without hitting one another, and about eight feet from the floor to the ceiling. This first entrance area ran ahead about ten feet before reaching a T-junction with a split to the left and right. The left went straight that way, while the right sort of curved a bit. 

“Okay!” Felix was saying, “Don’t go forward yet. Do not go near that intersection unless you want the Kyerekeunk to use you for lunch.” 

“What’s a Kyerekeunk?” I asked while curiously glancing around. I didn’t see anything, or detect anything with any other sense, for that matter. 

“No idea!” the girl back on the ship replied. “But the picture has a lot of tentacles and teeth, so maybe that squid thing from before? I dunno. Just don’t go forward yet. This thing says that you have to pass through that area when it’s sleeping, and it only sleeps for about ten seconds out of every minute.”  

“Boy,” I noted, “I thought I got away with a weird sleep schedule. Oh, and I hope those are consecutive seconds.” 

While Shiloh snickered, Felix was murmuring to herself, obviously distracted as she focused on deciphering her map and instructions. “Okay, hold on. Right, got it. Okay, I got it. Look to your right. Do you see a thin vertical blue line partway up the corridor?” When we acknowledged that we did, she explained, “The timing starts as soon as any part of you passes that line. After that, it’s fifty seconds of danger. If you’re within the area between that blue line and another one further in, you get a free trip to pain town with the Kyerekeunk. Then you’ve got ten seconds to get through before the thing resets.” 

“Okay,” I murmured with a look to Shiloh. “Guess we need to be careful then.” 

She gave a nod of agreement, swimming past me to get close to the blue line without crossing it. “Felix, which way are we going once we get through here, left or right? And please, please make sure you’re looking at it the right way.” 

There was a brief pause while the other girl triple-checked that before answering. “You want to go to the right. And when I say that, I mean the one that curves. It should curve. You see that?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed, “we definitely see it.” 

“Great! Good, fantastic, super.” Felix was clearly excited, but composed herself quickly. “So you definitely wanna go to the right, the direction that curves. Oh, and stay to the inside of the curve. I mean stay against the right wall when you do that. There’s a pretty nasty stinger spell along the left-hand side of that. It just makes you itch badly if you get in range, but that’d slow you down so you don’t get out of there before the Kyerekeunk wakes up. If you hug the right wall before you start into the curve, you should be safe. Oh, and you’ll know you’re safe when you hit an open area with pathways leading up, down, and forward. Stop in that area and don’t go anywhere. Seriously, just get to that spot and stop. You do not want to find out what bad things you could run into if you swim through the wrong doorway.” 

“Go to the right, stay against the right wall, stop when we get to the open area with paths up, down, and forward,” Shiloh repeated. “Got it. Okay, hold on.” With a glance toward me, she held her hand out until it was right next to the blue line. “Sadie, put up a stopwatch, ready to start on my mark.” 

Apparently Sadie was her wrist computer thing, because a holographic stopwatch appeared in the water, clearly projected from that. Shiloh, in turn, took a breath before simultaneously dropping her hand past the line and saying, “Mark!” Then she yanked her hand back while the holographic display began to count off the time. 

“At least we don’t have to try to get the shiver through here in those ten seconds too,” I cheerfully noted while watching the seconds. “You wanna go first or second?” 

She hesitated before gesturing. “I’ll bring up the rear, you’re probably better on the front line if we run into anything unexpected.” 

“Yeah, that’s probably fair,” Felix put in, clearly not insulted in the least, “I might’ve missed something. I mean, I’m really trying not to, but this Sinbad guy is intense.” 

Snorting a bit (a weird sensation underwater) I put in, “It’s okay, he’s trying to make sure we’re ready for the unexpected. And probably having a lot of fun while he does it.” 

By that point, we had about ten seconds before it was time for the actual ten seconds. Shiloh and I both braced ourselves. Just as the counter reached fifty, I kicked off and started swimming as fast as I could. The other girl was right behind me. Briefly, I thought about using the Seosten boost, but I didn’t want to leave her behind. Besides, I could make it the old-fashioned way. At least, I hoped I could. 

We swam hard, making the turn and heading around that curve while staying close to the right wall. No way did I want to get hit by that itching spell. I had no idea how much time had passed, and didn’t want to glance back to see the clock. We just had to keep going.  

As soon as I saw the slightly more open area ahead I swam even harder, using a little bit of boost to get there. Finally, I emerged into that open foyer space, seeing three dark doorways up in the ceiling, two below, and one big one straight ahead. I didn’t take the time to look too closely, however, spinning around to look back the way I’d come. Shiloh was there, still back a little bit with only three seconds left. So, I summoned my staff, enlarged it to twice its size, and extended the thing that way. The other girl grabbed on, before I yanked hard to pull her all the way into the open area. 

She was through. We were both through. And not even a second later, the timer hit sixty. 

“Whew,” I managed. “That was a little close.” 

“Thanks,” she gasped out, breathing hard. “I got a little close to the wall and got caught up.” 

Felix quickly put in, “Close, but still good, right? You’re both good? I don’t hear any tentacle thrashing.” 

With a little smile, I confirmed. “We’re good. Thanks for the directions, Felix.” Turning, I looked over the area we’d made it to, with multiple paths up, down, and forward. “And speaking of directions, oh mighty navigator…

“Which way now?” 

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Class Action 14-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude focusing on the archangels posted over the weekend. If you haven’t seen that yet, you can see it right here

Pretty soon, Sinbad had us all divided into trios. Our job as a group was to work together to navigate one of several underwater mazes he had set up, reach a ship that would be waiting for us somewhere within, and then find the treasure on that ship. We were being scored on how efficiently we got through the challenge, how well we worked together, and how long it took. And, of course, on how much treasure we safely retrieved. There were actually six mazes, ships, and treasures, all of them apparently different. When one trio finished, another would start. 

As far as the groups went, one person would stay up on this ship above the surface, using the makeshift map and notes they would be given to direct the other two through the maze and into the ship. From there, it would be up to the duo underwater to find the treasure safely. Apparently, whoever won would get a special prize from the man himself. 

Of course, it wasn’t just about navigating the underwater maze and then ship. The pair down in the water would also have to deal with traps and fake attacks from ‘sharks’ and other potential monsters down there. Not my sharks, of course. I wouldn’t even put them in as fake opponents, just in case someone got carried away or they were confused. No, these ones were apparently entirely fake creatures summoned and controlled by magic. Though from the large octopus thing that Sinbad made poke its tentacles out of the water and wave, they were very realistic. Only once he made one of the tentacles extend and allowed us to touch it did it become clear that the thing wasn’t real. It felt like a warm solid-light hologram of sorts. It would definitely seem real in the heat of the moment, and they would react to being hit the way a real one would. We were going to have to defend ourselves, and do so underwater as best as we could while using the powers and magic we had available to us. Sinbad wanted to see how well we all did like that. 

In my case, I was grouped up with Shiloh and Felix, Triss’s Nekomatan-human hybrid half-sister. She was the one who looked like a pale caucasian woman with very light blonde hair that was cut short, with a secondary set of cat ears atop her head and a long, fluffy white tail. When I’d first met her back before the whole thing with Fossor happened, she was hitting on some guy’s girlfriend, and had made it clear that she was very bisexual. Also, she was into Tristan and Vanessa. Like, Tristan and Vanessa. Which quite understandably weirded them both out. 

Anyway, according to Sands and Sarah, Felix had mellowed a bit after being told about certain people being a little uncomfortable. She still teased and played things up, but made sure to leave anyone alone if they didn’t like it. Triss had convinced her half-sister to avoid, as Felix put it, ‘throwing bait out there’ for anyone who made it clear they weren’t interested. In her words, she wanted to have fun, not make people feel creepy. 

In any case, as the three of us stood at the edge of the deck staring down into the water while waiting for one of the other trios to finish their run, I asked, “So which of us is going down there and who’s staying up here to play director? Uh, Shiloh, your computer thing?”

“It’s fine with water,” she assured me, waving her arm around so I could get a good look. It was a pretty sleek device, running from her wrist almost to her elbow along the back of her arm. The sides were slightly rounded, with dark blue edges while the bulk of it was white, including the screen whenever it wasn’t displaying anything (it could show images and text across the screen itself like a regular cell phone, or project a hologram image). There were various buttons along it which only Shiloh seemed to know the functions of. Well, her and anyone who had built the thing or helped her maintain it. But it was all Greek to me. Aside from the fact that I actually understood a little bit of Greek, thanks to some late-night study sessions. When you only had to sleep a couple hours a night, you had time to pick up a few extra things.

Felix’s cat-ears twitched a little. “Not to lean into stereotypes, cuz I’m fine with water, but I’ll stay up here and let the big bad Heretics–sorry, big good Heretics go explore the boat. Besides,” she added slyly, glancing around before lowering her voice in a somewhat husky whisper, “this way, I get to stand here and watch you two jump in the water. If it’s not too much trouble, could you do the Baywatch slow motion thing when you come out?” 

Yeah, I said she was being a bit better about leaving people alone who were demonstrably uncomfortable. That didn’t mean she had totally changed. She was still Felix, after all. 

Beside me, Shiloh choked a little before retorting, “I thought you said you weren’t leaning into stereotypes, Miss Sexy Cat Girl.” 

That earned her a Cheshire grin from Felix, “The thing about stereotypes is that some of them are fun to ride as far as they’ll take you. And speaking of–” 

“Okay!” I quickly interrupted, clapping my hands pointedly. “Felix is staying up here and Shiloh and I will go underwater. Works for me, considering I promised my buddies down there I’d go for a swim with them anyway. This is their big chance to show off for an audience.” 

“Yeah, having a bunch of sharks at your beck and call does give you a bit of an advantage that way,” Shiloh noted, watching me for a moment with a curious look. It seemed as though she was about to say something else, but stopped and simply shook her head.

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “Is something wrong?” Yeah, I knew people were looking at me funny after… everything. Between being abducted by Fossor, my mother being the one behind the first rebellion, the fact that I had triggered the spell that restarted that rebellion, and… and everything else, people were staring at me a lot since I’d come back. It made me feel funny. 

Shiloh shook her head quickly. “No, no, not wrong. Actually, it wasn’t really about you at all. I just–” She paused to consider her words before continuing. “I was just thinking about how I spent the whole year on a team with someone who has like… all the advantages and never even had a hint about it. I umm… guess I spent awhile wondering if I was just dumb.”

Eyes widening a little at that, I insisted, “What? No. Come on, you were on a team with freaking Lancelot-Guinivere. Do you have any idea how good she is at that sort of thing? Seriously, she fooled Gaia! And Gaia actually knew her! She tricked people who had a hell of a lot more time, skill, and power than any of us have. And it definitely wasn’t about making you feel dumb. She–I’m pretty sure she’d be upset if she thought she made you feel dumb, Shiloh.” 

Shiloh started to nod. “I guess you’re–wait.” She blinked at me then, head tilting as something else occurred to her. “What do you mean, Gaia knew Harp–I mean, Gwen? They met before?” 

Oh. Right, most people didn’t have Gaia’s adopted daughter as a girlfriend/teammate so they wouldn’t have been told about Gaia being Morgana. And boy had that been a surprise to find out about over the summer in my case. But Shiloh apparently didn’t know about that yet. 

My mouth opened to say she should talk to Gwen about it (at least she was involved in that situation), but before I could even get that far, Sinbad called our names along with Felix’s. The man was standing up towards the front of the ship, waiting for us to join him while the previous pair who had been in the water were pulling themselves, soaking wet, back onto the deck. 

Reaching out, I patted Shiloh on the back, murmuring that she should talk to Gwen about who she knew and how. Then I walked with her and Felix while trying to run through everything I needed to do before we jumped into the ocean, all the spells I had available, the ways I could get my shiver to help, the tricks and threats that might be waiting for us down there, and so on. 

We all glanced toward the three who had been ahead of us, but that wouldn’t reveal anything. Sinbad had erected a soundproof barrier around the member of each team who stayed on the ship, specifically so that the rest of us couldn’t hear what sort of problems that group was dealing with and get any sort of advantage for not going first. And the teams who went weren’t allowed to talk to anyone who hadn’t gone yet. He had a whole section set aside for the people who were done to get dry, have snacks, and gush over how they’d done, what they’d fought, and how much of the treasure they’d managed to bring back. 

“Good luck, Flick!” Sands called from where she, Roxa, and Sarah were waiting to do their own run together. The three of them waved, and I waved right back before focusing on the matter at hand once more. There were a lot of spells I could use that might be helpful, thanks to all the extra training I’d received from the Chayyiel ghost in my head (and the fact that I could think of that without being weirded out really said how much had happened in the past year and a half). The problem was knowing exactly what spell was the right one, and how to dole out my use of magic so I didn’t run out of energy to cast. Especially when I had no idea what was going to happen down there. Yeah, I had a lot of options, but I still needed to pace myself. 

Once we passed the little barrier line that prevented people outside it from hearing what was going on, Sinbad offered one of his trademark gem-filled toothy grins. “Now then! First things first, which of you three will be going under the sea? Hah! You see, I make poetry without even meaning to! Truly, I am a man of many skills! But now, tis time to see yours! So, who shall it be?” His intense gaze (everything about him was intense) passed over the three of us eagerly.

“Shiloh and me,” I announced, gesturing to the other girl. “We’re going down there. Felix is staying up with the map and directing us. Right?” I clarified, looking at them. 

The other two confirmed that with a pair of thumbs up, and Sinbad immediately pivoted to me. “Excellent! I was hoping you would jump in so we can see your shark friends get involved!” He visibly sobered a bit then before adding, “Of course, you know the so-called monsters you may face down there are not real. We have guardians standing by just out of sight, ready to jump in just in case anyone gets… stuck or has any problems. And, you have these.” From seemingly midair, he produced a couple small badges. They were red circles with a white triangle inside. “They allow the three of you to communicate with each other. Push the triangle, hold it for three seconds, you’ll be transported right back here to the deck of the ship. You can also use that to get back here once you have the treasure. Push it three times quickly and you’ll be transported all the way over to the hospital wing.” 

Shiloh, Felix, and I each took one of the badges and clipped them on. After Sinbad was assured that they were secure and working properly, he clapped his hands loudly. “Safety first!” His voice lowered a bit conspiratorially, “I have to say that to keep my job. Do any of you have any idea how terrifying your principal can be if she’s annoyed?” He eyed me then. “I bet you do.” 

Smirking despite myself, I offered him a somewhat casual shrug. “I guess I have some clue.” 

“But!” Turning cheerful and cocky once more, the man waved a hand encompassingly toward the sea. “Now that all that is taken care of, on to the more exciting business!” His eyes took in Shiloh and me once more before slyly adding, “I trust you both know how to cast a water breathing spell, or something of that sort?” When we both nodded, he asked, “And what of a communicate underwater spell? The badges will carry your words to one another, but if you can’t talk, your words will be a bit… indecipherable.” The man laughed loudly, adding, “You know, glub glub glub. Hard to talk under the sea without a little help.” 

“Oh, don’t worry, we know how to use the talk underwater spell,” I assured him. 

“We do?” Shiloh was looking at me with a bit of confusion, clearly taken aback by that. 

“Wh–oh.” Right, that was one that I had learned from my special tutor. Coughing, I waved a hand. “No big, I’ll show you how to do it. Here.” With that, I took a blank metal coin from my pocket and held it up for her to see. “First, you put a half circle line along the top like this.” My finger tapped the coin as I used my image-inscription power to do just that. “Then you want two little triangles just under it, with the tips just barely touching the inner part of the half-circle line, but they have to be exactly here, with the lower inside corners exactly as far from each other as they are from where the curve of the circle is here. As soon as you have both of them done, you want to put just a tiny bit of energy in the left triangle, then sort of… focus on letting that energy bleed through from that into the right one, until they both feel full to you. Once they are, you stop and finish the bottom half of the circle, like this. Then you write the letter C on the left side of the circle and L on the right side. That makes the circle stand in as the O in COL. It stands for the first three letters of Collucutio, Latin for conversation. Once that’s done, in that exact order, just put some power into it again, starting in the circle and spreading out to the C and L. Let the energy fill it until you sense that it’s full. The spell should last about an hour with a normal amount of power. You can refill it with a touch if you need to.” 

“Dude,” Felix managed once I’d finished all that, “you know a lot about magic.” 

“What she said,” Shiloh agreed quietly, her eyes darting from me to the coin I was holding up, then back again. “I’m starting to think I should ask you to tutor me. Or, you know, teach a class or something around here. You sure you were raised with Bystanders?” Even as she said it, the girl seemed to remember the whole thing about my mother, flushing visibly. 

With a very small, embarrassed smile, I shook my head. “It’s not a big deal, I’ve just had a few teachers who knew what they were doing. You know, my own tutors. It’s–yeah, it’s nothing.”

From the looks that Felix and Shiloh were giving me, they didn’t quite believe the whole ‘it was nothing’ response. But they didn’t push it beyond that, though Shiloh did reiterate that she was going to come to me for help learning other spells in the future. Especially once I guided her through the water communication enchantment once more to make sure she had it. Then I showed the girl how to push it against her lips and trigger the spell. Now whenever she (or I, after triggering the same spell on myself) spoke underwater, it would actually be audible. 

“Well, that all makes things much easier, doesn’t it?” Sinbad noted. The way he said that made me realize that if I hadn’t known the right spell, he would have provided something. Now, he simply spread his arms cheerfully. “Time to see what you are all capable of! Let us–wait!” Clearly interrupting himself, the man snapped his fingers before pointing at me. “As I was saying before distracting myself before! Your sharks are welcome to join in on the adventure, and I assure you they will not be harmed. However, should the enchantment surrounding my little traps and monsters register that a shark should have been incapacitated, they will be transported to an enclosed underwater space over there.” He pointed past the opposite end of the ship. “There will be plenty of room and fish for them to gorge themselves, and as soon as you are through the test, you can have them right back again. I trust that is fair enough?” 

“Yup, definitely fair enough,” I confirmed immediately. “Just give me a minute to explain it to them before you start the timer, would you? Actually, I need to explain this whole thing to them. Not fair if they don’t know what we’re trying to do.”

After considering that briefly, Sinbad gave me a broad smile once more. “Of course! Of course, everyone should be on the same page, as they say! Yes, ahhh, you may have a few minutes to speak with your water-bound friends, naturally. But to keep things fair and not give extra time to study the maze or vessel you are about to go into, you must get into the water and speak to them on this side of the ship.” He indicated the opposite side from where our target was. “Take the time you need to make them understand, then you and Miss Lexx here can enter the starting area. And, of course, Miss Laja cannot begin to look at the map until then. No extra time for that!” 

Exchanging a look with the other two, I nodded. “Right, yeah, that’s fair.” With those words, I touched the small pouch on my belt that was currently holding the Seosten bodysuit, exchanging that for my regular clothes. It would do for going into the giant lake, given it was waterproof, temperature-controlled, protective, and all sorts of other fun things. 

“Dude,” Shiloh abruptly blurted, “you just have something like that with you?” 

“Not that we’re complaining,” Felix quickly put in, both eyebrows rising pointedly. “I mean, I’m not.” 

Face turning red, I muttered something about understanding why Tabbris had kicked me for the way I had looked at her mother. Then I left the other two to get ready, with a word about meeting Shiloh on the other side. From there, I moved to the edge of the deck before diving overboard. A second later, I hit the water smoothly, dropping down a good ten feet before righting myself. There was no rush to using the breathing spell, considering I could hold my breath for up to ten minutes. And thanks to the aforementioned temperature-control, the water wasn’t cold at all. Some part of me wondered if that part was an unfair advantage. But then again, there were people in the class who had their own temperature resistance. The point of the exercise was to see how well we could do with what we brought in with us, be that equipment or innate abilities. And I had definitely brought the suit in with me. Being able to change into it just by touching the suit and exchanging that with what I was wearing was one of my powers. 

Shaking off those thoughts, I glanced off into the distance. Two of the mazes were visible, though one of those was far off to the left. Essentially, they looked like giant underwater buildings made of thick stone, with only one entranceway. Like a massive skyscraper that had fallen on its side. And somewhere in there would be the ship each group was looking for. 

God damn, when Sinbad set up a project like this, he didn’t half-ass it. 

For just a moment, I had to stop and really let myself feel the reality of this. I was home. I was back in classes (ridiculous as they may have been). I was doing something fun. Challenging, sure, but fun. I was meeting different classmates and spending time with them. I was… I was enjoying this. Seriously, I didn’t really care if we won or lost this challenge. I was going to shoot for the former, of course. But it wasn’t life or death. And that, all on its own, was amazing. No matter what happened with this today, I was going to go to another class afterward. I would go to another class, then to lunch, and then… who knew? My afternoon was open. We’d see when the time came. 

The point was, whatever happened in this class didn’t really matter. 

And after everything that has happened over the past couple of months, all the life and death struggles and trauma that had seemed to come relentlessly, something not mattering… actually mattered quite a lot. 

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Class Action 14-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As it turned out, my first Universal Ecology (which Ruedu outright said was an almost hilariously broad subject) lesson was focused on the Relukun. Or rather, on the effect a large group of them had had on human society here on Earth when they set up a society in the forests of England back during the middle ages. Apparently, even with the (not as strong as it was now) Bystander Effect in place, the presence of a colony of Relukun in England had led to a lot of their myths about the forest and trees in general. Such as the idea that a Rowan tree would protect against enchantment and witchcraft. The local Relukun tribe protected a village against an evil sorceress of some sort, and that had spread out through the Bystander Affected humans as ‘trees protecting people from evil magic.’ Things like that. 

There were two fur-covered lion-like boys who were wearing letterman jackets with the name of some high school in Iowa seated on the far side of the classroom from where I was. One of them raised his hand after we got through that bit. “So like, the humans remember certain pieces of what happened even with that spell? Like, subconsciously or whatever. Enough for their brains to go, ‘ooh, tree saved me’ but not enough to remember the tree walked and talked.”

With a quick, eager nod, Ruedu confirmed, “Yes! That is correct. Less so now, but still some. The memory’k is changed and suppressed, but there are still echoes, fragments. These echoes form much of human myth and legend, you’k see’k? The Relukun who’k lived in the forests there affected much of emerging human stories. Not only’k with myths of magic wood, but of monsters lurking in those forests, when the Relukun went to’k war with a tribe of were-creatures who’k insisted on encroaching upon their territory.”  

That made another boy, whom I suspected was some sort of Were himself, raise his own hand before asking, “A war with Weres? You mean like some kind of super pack, like the one–” He cut himself off briefly, looking over his shoulder in my direction for a moment before turning back and quietly finishing with, “The one Lemuel put together.” 

At a nod from Ruedu, Hazel spoke up. “That’s right, though they weren’t quite as violent or set on attacking everyone in sight as the one you’re talking about. From the different histories that came out of both groups, we’re pretty sure a lot of it was a case of miscommunication and egos. At least at first. Both groups wanted the same area, and there were some badly translated negotiations that ended up making everything worse until they started fighting. Even that probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere near as far as it did if it wasn’t for the Herr-Pala.” 

“The air-pay-lay?” Rebecca blurted. “What’s an air-pay-lay?” 

He spelled it for us, including the silent h at the start, which wasn’t even remotely fair. Then Hazel went on to explain, “A long, long time ago, even by our standards, the world that the Relukun call home was ruled almost entirely by a very dangerous man named Pala. If you’ve spent enough time here on Earth to understand the reference, you could compare him pretty closely to someone like Genghis Khan. Same general idea. He died forever ago, but the Herr-Pala consider themselves his heirs, his descendants. The name means saplings of Pala. Basically, they’re really mad at the rest of their people for not being more into war and battle and all that. They think the Relukun should be conquerors, the way they used to be. So they push for battle as much as they can.” 

Ruedu took over then. “Yes, yes, precisely’k. The Herr-Pala think it is bad to’k be’k passive or to’k make peace with others rather than conquering all who’k stand in their way. And of course there is something to be said for not being too’k passive.” She looked away briefly, as thoughts of the position her own people had been in for so long clearly ran through her mind. But she shook it off quickly and focused. “That can leave your species in a very bad spot. But in this case, the Herr-Pala were creating more of a problem than they were solving. They wanted war, and the disagreement with the were pack gave them an excuse. The pack called themselves ‘Of Remus.’ If you’k were a bird-were, you’k were ‘Talon of Remus’ or ‘Feather of Remus.’ A wolf were would be ‘Fang of Remus,’ or a lion or panther would be ‘Claw of Remus.’ There was some variation, enough that it would not tell you exactly what someone was by hearing their title. Which is how they wanted it. Obfuscation was useful, yes.” 

She looked to Hazel then, before the Seosten put in, “There’s some theories that the specific ‘feather, talon, fang’ and so forth also had something to do with rank within the pack, but as we haven’t been able to talk to anyone who was directly there and was a reliable source, that’s still just a maybe.” 

“What happened when the pack and the Relukun went to war?” Jazz asked. “I mean, which side won?”

“As is true’k in most such wars of territory’k and pride, there were far more losers than winners,” Ruedu answered quietly. “So many’k died. Not only’k among the pack and the Relukun, but among many’k innocents and uninvolved who’k happened to be there. War is fast and angry’k. It does not spare time to’k think of who’k is deserving or not.”

Hazel spoke up. “There’s a lot of things out there that make Bystander people afraid of the forest. Too many to count or to put the blame on any one group. But the war between the Remus pack and that tribe of Relukun sure didn’t help matters. It helped convince the people of England that there were monsters in the trees, and that even some of the trees themselves could be monsters. Or some of the trees could be helpful, like we said before. The point is, the people who grew up in those areas while that war was going on spread their stories everywhere else. And that by itself affected a lot, not only as far as the type of stories that people were telling, but also in how they interacted with their environment. Bystanders wanting certain types of wood because they thought it would protect them made others want to plant more of those trees, those flowers, and anything else that was supposed to be important like that.” 

“And that,” Ruedu explained with a glance toward me, “is one of the important things you’k will continue’k to’k learn in this class as we’k keep going. Our unit for these few weeks will focus on how situations within the Bystander world affected Alters and Bonded alike, and vice versa. We’k will be’k dividing into groups of five, and you’k will research two events of your choosing. One will be’k in how a situation within the Bystander world strongly affected the Alter world. The other will be the opposite, an event within the Alter world which strongly’k affected the Bystanders. And no,” she added with a chuckle-clatter of her mandibles, “you’k cannot use the one we’d just told you’k about.” 

That prompted a little bit of good-natured groaning from people who had thought they had a chance at an easy headstart, before everyone started to divide into groups. For me, it was easy to get a quick team of four with Rebecca, Jazz, and Gordon. But that left us one short. Or it did, until Jazz darted off to grab someone. She came back with one of her (and Gordon’s) housemates, Ruckus. He was the Alter who appeared to be made out of several giant slinkies, just an assortment of metal coils. Two slinkies for his legs, a big one in the middle for his body, two for his arms, and a head that was a slinky on its side with the ends connecting to make a circle. Two glowing red orbs, barely visible between a couple vertical coils of his head-slinky, were apparently his eyes. 

I hadn’t spent much time around Ruckus before, but I did remember one thing about him. 

“Youreallywantmetojoinyourgroup? Ohmygoshyouhavenoideahowcoolthatis! Ireallydidn’tknowwhichgrouptojoinbutifyouwantmetoI’mthere!” 

Yeah, that was the bit I remembered. He was like December, if not even more of a fast-talker. Every sentence all blurred together and it took me a second to really process what he was saying. “Uh, yeah, sure. That’s cool,” I managed, holding out a hand. “Welcome to the team, partner.” 

He bounced at that, literally. His coiled metal legs extended and he launched himself nearly to the ceiling before coming back down again and bouncing a little more carefully. “Thatissocool! YesyesyesI’mthere. ImeanI’mhere!” 

Chuckling despite myself, I nodded before taking one of his metal coils in my grip. It felt a little weird to hold. He did have something approximating a hand there, though it was more of claw made out of five thin metal pincer-finger things. He had a good grip too, shaking my hand enthusiastically while promising in a rush that he would help and be a good part of the group. 

Eventually, all the groups managed to organize themselves and we were told to take some time after classes to figure out what two events we wanted to focus on. We were supposed to have a plan when we came back to this class on Friday. Actually, we were supposed to have several options, just in case two (or more) groups chose the same thing. Ruedu wanted every group to focus on different events, so if more than one chose the same, she’d pick a group out of a hat or something to decide who got to do that one. 

In any case, once that was settled and people were thinking about what events to suggest to their team, she and Hazel went back to discussing that whole war between the Relukun tribe and the Remus pack, and how it had affected Bystander history, lore, even the availability of crops in the area. That single event–okay, not a single event given it had lasted for years, but still, that one thing had created a domino effect that changed a lot in the area. And that sent waves of change throughout all of England and beyond, given how much influence people of the UK had had over the rest of the world for so long. 

Yeah, I had the feeling I was going to learn a lot from this class. And all of that made me wonder about something else important. Years, decades, even centuries in the future, how would other students in those classes learn about the whole Bosch civil war going on right now? 

And which side would they be learning those lessons from? 

******

After that, the second class I had was a little more familiar. It was Trials of the Sea, with Sinbad. Apparently this was the same class unit I had started before everything happened, he was just back around to the start. Or close enough that I could easily pick up things as we went along. 

It was, of course, a bit of a shift to go from talking about how different events affected the Bystander or Alter world in ecological terms, to standing on a wooden ship somewhere in the middle of the Starstation’s massive (three-hundred and fifty miles long and a hundred and fifty miles wide) artificial lake so we could talk all about treasure hunting, ship-to-ship combat, diving, or just plain sailing. Though referring to it as ‘plain’ was probably a bad idea, since from everything I’d heard, even totally normal sailing was never ‘plain.’ There were so many natural dangers in being out on the sea with just a wooden ship and the rest of the crew around you, let alone the living, magical, or man-made ones. Yeah, sailing the oceans was a lot of things, but it was clearly never boring. 

This particular class I was taking with Sands, Sarah, Roxa, and Shiloh (the Caucasian girl from ‘Harper’ and Eiji’s team with jaggedly-cut brown hair who used a wrist-mounted computer that could ‘hack’ into and control almost any object from computers to cars, guns, doors, etcetera). 

In Roxa’s case, apparently she was taking a lighter schedule so that she could spend more time with her pack. But she still wanted to be around some and take classes with the rest of us since she could do that while still being herself and not hiding what she was, unlike the situation with Crossroads. The rest of us were still taking three classes a day, alternating between being focused on mundane and magical. Though there was some overlap in that, since the previous class about Universal Ecology was actually considered one of the mundane ones. I supposed a better descriptor of them would be ‘academic’ versus ‘action.’ Some classes were focused on book and fact learning, others were more about getting out there and doing things. Training versus classroom learning, that sort of thing. 

Yeah, I wasn’t exactly sure how they determined the system, but it was apparently working well enough. And I sure wasn’t going to argue about getting another chance to take this particular class. Growing up in Wyoming meant I hadn’t exactly spent a lot of time at the ocean, or on boats in general. This was just plain neat. 

At the moment, we were all standing around on the deck of the ship after coming through the connecting portal that brought us here. There was no sign of the teacher yet, but I was pretty sure Sinbad would shrivel up and die if he didn’t get to make at least three dramatic entrances per day. 

This was technically the fifth class this group had had together, but I could catch up on anything I’d missed in my off-hours. Just another one of the benefits of never needing much sleep, which was a list that seemed to be growing long enough to reach into the triple digits. 

Oh, and there was one more benefit to having a class like this. 

“She’s so huge!” one of the other students gushed excitedly. He was a Lupera, the red-furred humanoid canine figures who were another of the four sapient species who came from the same world as the Akharu. Which was apparently called Verhava (pronounced Vare-Hay-Vuh) Anyway, the ‘she’ the Lupera student was referring to happened to be Princess Cuddles, my great white shark who was currently gliding through the water just off the side of the ship. The rest of my sharks were arranged a bit behind her as they moved almost in formation, like a squad of fighter jets. Because that was the other benefit to having this class. It meant I could be around all my sharks together. Being able to pull them to me in those forcefield bubble things was still incredible, but getting all of them together in their natural habitat was fun too. I had summoned one at a time from the bigger-on-the-inside vial and sent them down into the lake to stretch their fins there. I could almost sense their excitement with this whole thing, because they knew I’d be able to swim with them soon. And boy did they like it when I swam with them. 

Stepping over beside the boy, I leaned out to look down into the water myself. Yeah, PC was definitely playing up for the crowd of students, who all kept oohing and ahhing over all the sharks, but her in particular. Well, her and Jabberjaw, who was still Mr. Vanity, doing anything he could to get the crowd to pay attention to him. 

Realizing I was standing next to him, the Luperan boy looked over to me, a grin evident in his snout. “That must be so cool, making friends with all these sharks. They really listen to you?” 

Matching his smile with one of my own (okay, with slightly fewer fangs involved), I gave a quick nod. “It is pretty cool. And yeah, they’re my shiver. Oh, that’s what you call a group of sharks,” I added in response to his briefly confused look. 

“Awesome!” the boy barked, almost literally. Belatedly, he extended a hand. “Sorry, we all know who you are, but I’m Timmins. Actually I have like three names, one of them’s–” And then he made a long, complicated growl-bark-yip sound. “But the Trade language version is more like Seclutimminsrek. I prefer just the Timmins part.” 

“Well, Timmins it is then,” I greeted him while shaking the boy’s hand. “Did you uhh, grow up on Verhava then?” I was curious about that world in general, particularly given the fact that we were supposed to be getting close to tracking down Asenath’s father. The fact that it was the native home of four distinct and very different sapient species was pretty curious in and of itself. As far as I could tell, that wasn’t very normal. Four species, the Akharu, the Vestil, these Luperan, and finally, the last of the Verhavan natives were Incubi/Succubi. Those people were capable of shifting their sex as needed, and did a lot of the whole ‘draining people’s life force either through sex or by making bargains/deals’ thing that tended to be attributed to demons in Bystander myths. 

It was an Incubus that Deveron had killed to get his permanently radically altered appearance when he was my age. Which made me picture what seeing a female version of him would be like, and boy was that different. 

“For awhile!” Timmins enthusiastically confirmed, his ears perking up. “We took a colony ship away when I was–uhh, like the human equivalent of twelve?” His head tilted as he did a bit of mental math before giving a sharp nod. “Yeah, that!”

“You took a colony ship? Like a spaceship?” That was Shiloh, who had stepped up beside me to look down at the sharks before focusing on what he had just said. Only belatedly did she flush visibly and start to take a step back. “Err, sorry. That was rude.” 

Both Timmins and I insisted she was fine, before the Luperan boy confirmed that he did indeed mean a colonizing spaceship. “We were supposed to go to this other hidden planet behind an asteroid belt, where some of our people set up to escape all the wars. But we hit some kind of magical… portal… transport thing and ended up crashing here on Earth, in Arizona. That was like… ten years ago.” 

“Dude,” Shiloh gushed while absentmindedly brushing her uneven bangs back out of her face, “you’ve gotta–hang on.” Glancing over to the corner of the ship where she’d dumped her backpack with most of the others, the girl hit a button on her wrist-mounted computer. As she did so, a narrow beam of green light flew out to hit the bag. A second later, the thing literally floated up and moved through the air to where we were, controlled by a few short gestures from Shiloh’s hand. When it was close enough for her to grab, she did so, reaching in to take out a bag of beef jerky, which she offered to the canine boy. “Trade a snack for you telling me all about your world during lunch?” 

“Hey, I’d like to get in on that too,” I put in. “I uhh, I’ll get back to you on the bribe part.” 

“Are you kidding?” Timmins gushed. “I’d tell you guys all about home for free!” After a brief double-take at the bag of dried meat offered, he quickly grabbed it. “But uhh, if you wanna share…” He was clearly embarrassed by his own excitement over getting the jerky, his tail wagging rapidly. 

With a giggle, Shiloh gestured. “Take it, no worries. I did offer. Just make sure you’ve got some good stories to tell, huh? I’m sorta collecting them for a book. Stories about other worlds, I mean.” 

“Really?” That was news to me, and I blinked that way. “That’s pretty cool.” 

She started to nod and say something else about it, but that was the point where Sinbad chose to make his grand entrance for the day. That entrance, in this case, turned out to be descending through the sky while riding a giant feathered serpent with wings. Yeah, seriously. The thing was fifty feet long, fairly narrow like a snake along with an appropriately-shaped head, but had feathers all over it along with six large wings, three on each side all working in concert. 

As soon as the first cry went up as the feathered serpent appeared with Sinbad literally standing near the head, the thing dove fast and began to fly in circles slowly around the ship, far enough out that the wings didn’t immediately capsize us, though it did lurch under our feet a bit. The heavily-tanned man, wearing a glorious violet and silver sleeveless silk shirt, stood tall as his long, curly dark hair flew wildly in the wind. His gold eyes seemed to gleam just as much as his gold, silver, and ruby teeth as he grinned. “Good morning, my brilliant treasure seekers!

“Who’s ready for an adventure?!” 

A/N – the next commissioned chapter will be out early Friday afternoon, US mountain time.

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Commissioned Interlude 6 – April, May, and December (Heretical Edge 2)

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“No, no, no! Bad stove!” Adding a flurry of her own people’s curses to that, the red-haired Seosten known as April quickly opened the oven before stumbling back with a cough as dark smoke came billowing out. It was accompanied by the obnoxious shriek of the alarm letting everyone within earshot know that cooking brownies had gone horribly wrong. She waved the smoke away, leaning in to grab the cookie sheet. 

“Wait!” A hand grabbed her arm, stopping the girl. So surprised was she by the unexpected physical contact, that April put up no struggle as she was pulled quickly backward. Glancing that way revealed that her accoster was the human named Douglas, the skinny blond Heretic boy. Only once she was safe did Douglas turn his attention to the smoke with a cough, waving his hand in front of his face. “Oh, that’s not great,” he managed before quickly making a fist and holding it near the smoke. When the boy moved his hand, a glowing yellow orb was left behind. With the sound of rushing air, all of the smoke was drawn into the orb, which turned darker and darker until it was black, then disappeared with the sound of a bubble popping. The smoke vanished with it. 

While he was doing that, a different figure stepped forward and reached in to grab the pan from the oven. It was Kushiel’s daughter, the Mendacia (or Lie) who called herself Theia. She simply caught hold of the pan full of its quite thoroughly burned, brick-like contents before setting it on top of the stove. 

“Theia!” Doug blurted. “I just stopped her from grabbing that with her bare hand, why would you do it? Are you okay?” Even as he asked that, the boy was leaning in to turn off the oven while holding his other hand up toward the smoke detector. A glowing energy construct shaped like a long pole with a finger on the end appeared and hit the button to silence the obnoxious alarm. 

Looking at the burn on her hand, the pale, brown-haired girl flatly replied, “I have felt worse.” With that, she looked to April. “We rang the bell, but the alarm was too loud. We… believed you could be in danger. Or that a very small mouse was trapped in your speaker system and desperately trying to communicate through very high-pitched scream-squeaks.” She paused. “But we only thought that for a moment.” Another pause. “… Do you have any mice?”

Straightening a little, April squinted, first at Douglas, who was adjusting the door of the oven to let it air out, then at Theia, who was looking around as though still partially-convinced there was a trapped supernaturally brilliant mouse somewhere. “Um, several, actually. But I promise none of them are trying to communicate. Or stuck in any of the stereo equipment.” Her head tilted as she looked at the New York Rangers hat on Theia’s head. “I thought that was the boy’s.” 

“I have tried to return it to him,” the other Seosten insisted, pointing to it. “He will not take it.” 

“I told you,” Doug insisted in a voice that made it clear they’d had the conversation before. “It was a present. You don’t take presents back. I mean, yeah, first it was just so you and Pace could both control her body, but now you’re out of her and… I mean, you’re you. You should keep it.” He turned away then, mumbling something about how Sulan already made him several replacements. 

“But…” April started before considering her words. “What… why are you both here?” 

“This is the house you and the other two Calendar members have been given to stay within while you are visiting the school, yes?” Theia prompted. “Douglas and I want to be… what is it?” 

“Welcoming committee,” the human boy supplied. “We’re here to be part of your welcoming party. We thought the others would be here too, ahh, where’s December and May?” 

Before answering, the red-haired Seosten looked back and forth between her fellow Lie and the boy. “If you are concerned about what we are up to, the security forces of this station have made it clear that any sensitive areas are under powerful protections and guard. We would not risk offending our hosts after agreeing to a truce by attempting to bypass those measures. That’s…” She paused. “That is strategically unsound.”

Doug exhaled, shaking his head quickly. “No, no. We’re not here to check in on you. I mean, we are, but not like that. We just wanted to see how you guys were doing. I mean,  I know everything’s pretty weird right now with Flick…” He trailed off, a grimace crossing his face. 

April gave a short nod. “The abduction of Felicity Chambers has upset many people. Not only her immediate family.” She looked toward the heavily burnt tray of what would have been brownies and gave a long sigh. “I… was attempting to provide a treat for December to take to Sariel’s younger daughter. She said that the girl has been… very sad, and hard on herself.” 

With a wince, the boy agreed. “Yeah, I mean, the others have been trying to help Tabs, but she’s not… taking it that great. Neither are Shiori and Avalon.” He sighed heavily. “And it sucks. But we’re not here about that. Sorry about your brownies, but I think we could probably help make more. You know, if you want.” 

Blinking at that, April didn’t answer at first. Instead, she asked, “You grabbed my arm. But you know what I am. Why would you do that?” 

As if it actually answered anything, Doug replied, “I didn’t want you to burn yourself.” He squinted toward Theia. “I didn’t want anyone to burn themselves, but I guess we’ll take what we can get. Next time, we’re using the oven mitt. Do you have an oven mitt? I’m bringing you an oven mitt.” He paused, then looked at her. “You mean why would I touch you when I know if you possess me I have to die before you can come out?” 

“Yes,” April confirmed, “that.” 

“Well,” the boy answered carefully, “the way I see it, you don’t particularly want to be stuck in me, right? You and me, we’re not exactly direct enemies or anything. Besides, you’re here on a truce, and you wouldn’t want to break that. Being afraid that you’ll possess me? I might as well be afraid that anyone around here will pull out a knife and stab me in the throat. You’ve been taught since you were a little kid that possessing people that you don’t mean to is bad and wrong and all that. It’s been drilled into your head forever. So why would I be afraid of you doing it anyway? You’re not a little kid or anything. Hell, you’re not even really a teenager, even if you look like you’re about fifteen. Theia looks like that too and she’s more like thirty.” 

“Yes,” April agreed with a squint. “She and I are close to the same age, I believe.”  

“Well, there you go.” Gesturing, Doug added, “You’re not some little kid. You’re an adult. I’m not afraid of you possessing me because we’re not enemies, and you’re not a sociopath. Trust me, I was teammates with a sociopath. I don’t worry about you possessing me for the same reason I don’t worry about random people in the hall pulling out a gun and shooting me in the face. I’ve got no reason to think you’re going to.” 

“They are very odd people,” Theia noted with a slight smile. “But I like them.” Head tilting to look at the oven, she wrinkled her nose at the smell. “I also like good brownies. Those are… not.  

“So, may we help make more?” 

******

The noise from a few dozen students in the college-level math class chattering with one another dulled quickly before silencing as their teacher stood at the front of the room with his hand up. The man was a Mezulef named Wuld. His people were slightly shorter than average humanoids, standing between three and five feet tall, and had thick brown fur along with ten eyes positioned in a ring all the way around their head. Wuld was on the taller end for his people, which still put him below average human height. 

Once the class was silent, the man gestured for the figure waiting by the door to come in. Promptly, May, who had been watching that, crossed the front area of the classroom and stood by the man. The Seosten, who by human standards looked like an Asian girl around eighteen years old (but was actually more like forty by Earth standard) stopped a few feet from the man, reflexively giving him the same space she had been taught throughout her life to give others. She had to be more than arm’s length away at all times if possible. 

“Okay, guys,” Wuld began in his people’s signature gruff voice, “this right here is May, one of our Seosten guests. I found her in the library earlier going through the same section on statistics we’re about to work on. Turns out she’s kinda good at it. Right, May?” 

Seeing everyone in the class staring at her, May hesitated slightly. She felt oddly shy, shifting on her feet while rubbing her hands against her baggy urban camo pants. Though she might have been considered a near middle-aged adult as a normal human, she was still quite young by Seosten standards. And more importantly, she was accustomed to being ignored at best, or more often loathed. Seeing people watching her with curiosity, as if they wanted to know more about her? That was… different. 

“Yes,” she finally managed, after taking a moment to collect herself. “I… enjoy math.” 

“And I enjoy teaching people who want to learn,” Wuld replied. “So May here is gonna sit in on a few classes. More if she wants to.” To the girl herself, he added, “Why don’t you go ahead and find a seat, then we’ll get started.” 

Find a seat? May blinked, turning to squint at the man. “With… them?” she asked blankly. 

Wuld, in turn, raised four different eyebrows before raising his voice. “Ah, quick question. Cooties. Does anyone in here have cooties?” Seeing no hands raised, he informed the girl, “By the grace of the pharaohs, I think you’re safe.” 

May still didn’t move immediately. She turned, looking toward the desks. There were several open, but all were in the middle of other groups. There were people all around  every open desk. People who were now waiting for her. 

“Here,” one girl finally spoke up, raising her hand with a mechanical pencil clasped in it. She was the Heretic known as Shiloh, a young Caucasian woman with dark brown hair that barely reached her shoulders in the back while the rest was shorter, leading to jagged, uneven bangs in the front. “There’s a desk here.” She indicated the seat beside her. 

May had been somewhat surprised that the teacher had told her to find a seat so close to his normal students. But seeing one of those students actively invite her over to sit directly next to her was even more unexpected. For a moment, she just stood there, staring briefly until Wuld cleared his throat. Then she found herself walking that way. With each step, May expected to see a shift of bodies away from the desk in question. But she didn’t. They didn’t. They stayed where they were. A few looked impatient to get back to the actual class. Which in and of itself was even more surprising. They weren’t paying attention to her every move. They weren’t staring at her with paranoia, waiting to slap her with punishment for getting too close, or even reflexively shifting their bodies away as she neared them.  

What in the name of the Fomorian progenitor was wrong with them? 

Shaking that uncertainty off as well as she could, May moved to the desk that had been offered and sat down. She placed the math book on the desk before looking over to the girl. “Thank you,” she started a bit awkwardly, unsure of exactly how to proceed. “Do not worry. I will try not to bother you.” 

“Try not to bother me?” Shiloh echoed in disbelief before shaking her head. “Dude, Mr. Wuld said you’re good at this math stuff, right? I totally called dibs on you helping me.” 

Immediately, the orange-skinned, purple-haired Querv boy who sat directly behind May leaned forward. “Hey, she’s gotta help me too. I’m totally lost on this stuff.” 

Turning a bit to put both of them in her line of sight, May stared for a silent moment. In the background, she noticed Wuld writing the next formula they would be studying on the white board. “You… want me to… help you learn.” Her voice was dull and flat from disbelief. 

“I mean, if you want to,” Shiloh quickly amended with a visible blush. “You don’t have to. It’s not like a requirement to sit here or anything. It’s just, I–” She glanced to the Querv boy. “I mean, we could really use some help.” Offering a slight, clearly nervous smile, she added, “Please?” 

“But you know what I am,” May pointed out. “You know I am… a Lie.”  

“Yeah, and like, everyone here has different powers and weapons and shit that could kill people,” Shiloh retorted. “But they aren’t good at math. Err, maybe they are… that’s not the point. The point is, you’re good at math. So, could you help us understand it?” 

“I…” Pausing, May finally gave an uncertain nod. “Yes. If you wish. 

“I would very much like to help you learn.” 

*******

“The people here are very strange.” 

As she made that announcement, April was sitting down in the main school cafeteria to eat dinner. December was to the right of her, with May on the far side of the younger girl. 

“That is understandable,” Theia, who had taken the seat directly across from April, pointed out. “Many of them are Strangers.” Her head tilted with a quirky, uneven smile, showing her teeth somewhat goofily. “Of both the capitalized and non-capitalized variety.” Leaning forward, she added in a quieter, somewhat conspiratorial voice. “That was a joke. I make them now. It’s fun.” 

“What’sstrangeaboutthem?” December piped up in a blur of words. She had been fairly quiet for awhile. Which was incredibly unusual for her. Now, she looked first to May to her right, then to April to her left.  

May, after giving Theia a brief squint, turned her attention to the youngest Calendar member. “They know what we are, yet they are not afraid of us. They… put us near their young. They want to learn from us. They touch us when they don’t have to. They are all very perplexing.” 

“Should, uhh…” Douglas, who was seated next to Theia, turned to look at Shiloh, who had just plopped down next to him a moment earlier. “Should we let them know that we’re sitting here and can actually hear them right now?” 

“My comment was partially intended for you, Douglas,” April primly informed him. “I still do not understand your actions earlier. We… don’t understand any of your actions. Why do your people insist on treating us as though we are not… what we are? Yes, you said that you are not afraid of being murdered, but… why would you treat us as though we are not… mistakes?” There was a bit of… worry, confusion, and disbelief in her voice. April had been treated a certain way her entire existence. Seeing a few people, such as the Las Vegas mission group, treat her differently had been one thing. But this was so much more than that. 

“Is it simply their trust in this protection spell that their archmages have been preparing?” May put in curiously. 

“Nah, that’s not it,” Shiloh, who actually looked a little amused by their bafflement, noted. “They have to do that anti-possession spell one-on-one the first time. Have they gotten to you yet?” she asked Doug. Getting a headshake in response, she gestured. “Me neither. Apparently they can like… renew the whole group once it’s applied, you just have to come back here once in awhile. But for the first time, they have to cast the spell on you directly. Lots of people don’t have it yet. It’s gonna take awhile.” 

Perking up a bit, December blurted, “Tabbrisishelpingwiththat! Orshewasbeforeshefellasleep. TheysaidIshouldlethersleep. Cuzshewasn’tsleepingforalongtime. BecauseofFlick.” 

Shiloh hesitated. Though the fact that the Seosten girl had possessed Flick for a long time was generally known, there were a lot of rumors and contradictory ideas. “Umm. They’re like… adopted sisters or something?” 

“Yes,” Theia immediately put in, leaning forward and turning her head to look down toward the other girl. “They are sisters. She is very upset about Flick Chambers’s disappearance. So… so are a lot of people.” 

“But they figured out the spell was some kind of time travel thing,” Doug put in. “Koren said Wyatt and Professor Dare went over it and they think it jumped her forward a few weeks. So–” 

“Her birthday,” May noted. “The necromancer sent her to her own birthday.” 

“Yeah, some present, right?” Doug muttered. 

“Tabbrishasbeenworkingreallyhard!” December announced, sounding worried. “Ithinkshe’sworkingtoohard. She’sdoingallthismagicstuff. Andshe’sdoingschoolstuff. Andshe’strainingwithAvalon. ShesaidshewantsAvalontoteachherhowtofight. CuzshewantstohelpsaveFlick. Sheknowsshecan’tfindherrightnow. Soshe’susingthetimetolearn. Andshekeepshavingnightmarestoo.” The last few words came out quietly, as she looked down. 

It was Shiloh who spoke up, reaching across the table to poke December. “Hey, they’ve got a sundae bar over there. Why don’t you grab something?” 

“Sunday?” December sounded baffled. “Butit’sstill–” Her confusion vanished as she saw what was pointed out. “Icecreamit’sicecreamwhocareswhatdayitis?!” With that, she was a blur of motion that disappeared that way. 

May looked to her new classmate. “Thank you. December is still young. She wishes to help Sariel’s… Tabbris. She wishes to help Tabbris, but she… we do not know how.”

“It’s no big,” Shiloh insisted a bit awkwardly, a blush touching her face. “It’s just ice cream. People like ice cream. You like ice cream, right? We could both go get it. You know, just–” 

Her words, awkward as they might have been, stopped as she instead squinted past the others. “What’s your friend doing?” 

“December?” Turning, May looked that way, to see the girl in question standing out of the way, hands clasped behind her back as she watched a couple other Seosten students filling their bowls with ice cream. 

“Hey.” Shiloh was up from the seat, stepping that way before the others could react. “That’s not fair. She was ahead of you and then she just put her bowl down and moved. What’d you guys say to her?” 

“What?” The young Seosten boy looked at his female companion, then shook his head at Shiloh, while she was joined by Doug, Theia, May, and April. “We just told her to remember the rules, that’s all.” 

“Yeah,” the female Seosten who was with him agreed. “I mean, I don’t really want to take ice cream once she’s… touched and breathed on all of it.” 

While the others reacted to that, Doug marched forward. The two unfamiliar Seosten each took up reflexive ready stances as though expecting him to start a fight. Instead, the boy walked past them, plucking a spoon from the tray. He leaned over, digging into one of the cartons to take up an enormous scoop of strawberry-chocolate ice cream. Then he walked over, thrusting the spoon out toward April. “Bite?” 

Looking very confused, the girl took a bit of the ice cream. Once she had some, Doug offered the still-quite full spoon toward Theia. “Bite?” He then waited as the other girl took a bite of her own, before offering it in turn to May and December. By that point, there was only a little ice cream left. Doug turned to the two newcomers and pointedly put the spoon fully into his mouth, taking all the ice cream there was before licking it clean to get every bit of it. 

“You guys… you don’t even…” The Seosten girl opened and shut her mouth before shaking her head as she turned to leave, the boy following after her. 

“Why did you do that?” April asked, squinting at Doug. 

“Cuz,” he replied easily, “with some people, it doesn’t matter how much you argue, how much you yell or fight or insult them. None of that’ll do anything. It won’t change their minds. Especially when they’ve grown up with it like those guys have. The only chance you’ve got is for them to see it for themselves. And not just a little bit, not just once. Over and over again.” 

“Okay, but dude,” Shiloh put in, “next time, I get to help. I like ice cream too.” 

Standing together, the three Calendar members looked at the two Heretics. April announced, “You see? Very strange people.” 

“Yes, they are strange,” Theia agreed, her voice quite cheerful as she put both hands on the sides of the hat Doug had given her. “But I am strange too. 

“And I would rather be strange together, than strange alone.”

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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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