Shiloh Lexx

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. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Class Action 14-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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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Before The Vault 41-04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good call, she agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 40B – Dosina Banning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl blinked that way. “Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are we?” Shiloh asked her father.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know I am!”  

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Interlude 39C – Gwen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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