Shiori Porter

Sharkhunt 23-04

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi, Felicity.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean you–”

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

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

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

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

“What?! The werewolves were, but–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharkhunt 23-02

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The only thing more surprising than seeing Avalon with that look on her face was the fact that she gave no reaction to me teasing her for having that look on her face. She just stood there with that goofy smile, staring at Prosser while her mouth opened and shut a few times as if she was trying to say something, but couldn’t get the words out. It was both strange (for her), and adorable.

Not that I was surprised that the other girl was kind of goofy when it came to Prosser. After all, I had seen her reaction before, when she found out that I had met the man. But still, it was always surprising to see Avalon act… well, not-Avalony. And this moment was almost on another level.

I was about to clear my throat and try to get my roommate’s attention when she finally spoke up. Her voice was a little shaky, but still understandable enough. “You–” She stopped, blinking rapidly before starting again in a voice that was somehow even weaker than before. “Mr. Prosser–”

The man winced a little at that. “Please,” he spoke simply, “call me Gabriel. I… much prefer that.”

“I… I… can’t.” Avalon’s face twisted a little bit, as if disagreeing with the man caused her actual physical pain. “You…” She trailed off again, visibly bracing herself before starting to speak again. “When I was young, I was weak… and scared. I didn’t think that I could ever protect myself. But Seller, he told me stories about Gabriel Prosser, about what you did, what you overcame. He told me some of the stories, and I looked up others. I took one of the books out of their library and I…” Her mouth worked a little, and I saw a hint of dampness in the girl’s eyes before she blinked it away. When she continued, her voice cracked a little bit from emotion. “I kept the book with me in… in class, in training, at meals, even in bed. I kept it everywhere b-because even though it was just a book, it was a book about you. So I thought that it–you could protect me. It was stupid, but–but I needed it. I needed you, and you were there. You just didn’t know about it.

“So, if you prefer Mr. Gabriel, I’ll call you that. But you’ll always be Mister to me.”

Oh… oh. Suddenly this wasn’t nearly as amusing as it had been a few seconds earlier. The fact that Avalon felt that strongly enough to say it not just in front of me, but in front of Shiori as well said a lot. The two of them had gotten a little closer, of course. But they would never be anything more than friends, at the most. And yet, she had exposed that vulnerable part of herself like that.

As for the man himself, his voice was quiet. “Mr. Gabriel’ll do just fine, Miss Sinclaire. Thank you.”

His eyes moved to Shiori then, and the other girl gave a little wave before speaking up. “Uh, hi, Mr. Gabriel. Thanks for, you know, teaching us how to exorcise these stupid wannabe-angels.”

Coughing, I raised an eyebrow. “You really had to try not to make a joke about exercise, huh?”

Shiori’s head bobbed up and down rapidly, voice plaintive. “It was really hard! I had a good one!”

Despite myself, I smiled and patted her shoulder. “Later.” Meanwhile, I squeezed Avalon’s arm with my other hand before turning to the man in front of us. “They’re both right though. We owe you a lot. With your help, maybe we can identify the Seosten that’s possessing one of our friends, then use your spell to drive them out and make it so they can’t possess anyone else for awhile.”

Gabriel shook his head at that. “It’s not my spell, Felicity. It was created by your family, the Atherbys. My teaching it to you now is just… passing the spell back to where it belongs.”

Swallowing, I gave a little nod despite myself. “You said that you agreed with Professor Pericles about sending my–my mom away from the clan because she was the last surviving Atherby and you didn’t want her to get drawn into all that stuff after both of her parents sacrificed themselves to get rid of the Fomorians. Well, her dad sacrificed himself. Her mom sacrificed… you know, everyone’s memory of her. Anyway, you said that the whole reason you agreed to send her away, to have Pericles’s Bystander friends raise her was to keep her safe. You must’ve–um, you must’ve been kind of annoyed when you found out that Crossroads recruited her after all that.”

“That’s putting it a bit mildly,” he replied. “As far as I recall, that was the only time that I raised my voice to Zedekiah Pericles. Thinking about them teaching Joselyn that hogwash was just… it was too much.  Losing Joshua, losing my memory of his wife, that was bad enough. But Joselyn, sweet little Bossy Jossy being brainwashed into the kind of mindless, kill-everything-in-sight automaton Crossroads and that other place like to churn out? I wanted to go get her out of there.”

Curiously, I asked, “Why didn’t you? I mean, I’m pretty sure most of the people that could’ve stopped you from taking her would’ve been too busy asking for your autograph or something.”  

He sighed. “Because your mother needed training. She was–is an Atherby. And it wasn’t my right to keep her away from being the best she could be. I could keep her safe from this, sure. Shove her in a glass bowl, clip her wings, throw up walls. But if I did that, if I took away her potential, if I limited what she could become, how would I be any different from the people that wanted to hurt her? How would I be any different from the people who thought they could control my destiny?”  

Shrugging, he added, “Training her here wasn’t an option. There were still too many threats that wanted to take a shot at the leader of the Atherby clan. If she came, she would’ve stepped right into those crosshairs. I thought letting her train there would at least give her a chance to stay somewhat anonymous. But then…” He smiled, clearly proud. “Well, she didn’t stay anonymous.”

“That’s one thing Mom doesn’t seem very good at,” I agreed. “She kinda sucks at anonymous.”

Avalon gave me a look then, her voice as dry as old leaves as she retorted, “You’re one to talk.”

While I blushed, Gabriel picked his shovel up off the ground before turning to walk toward the cabin. “If you girls don’t mind,” he spoke easily, “I’d like to get started while we have the chance.”

Quickly nodding, I started after the man. “Yeah, I might not need more than an hour of sleep before class, but these guys could probably use at least four or five if we can swing it.”

He led us past the cabin and around the side. I could see a vegetable garden there in the back, surrounded by a wire fence to keep any animals out. On the porch, a Bernese mountain dog lay slumbering in the dim light cast by the lantern there. He opened one eye as we passed, gave a sleepy rumble approximating a half-hearted bark, then closed it again and turned his head away.

Without looking back, Gabriel spoke up. “That’s Cashew. Best dog I ever saw for chasing pests off the property, and I’ve seen more than my share of them. Fast and loud. Pretty sure he’s given a couple rabbits heart attacks when they come sniffing around the garden, trying to find a way past the fence. Popular guy too, he’s got a few puppies around the rest of the cabins.”

“Rest of the cabins?” I echoed, tilting my head at that. “I only saw this one.” Even as it was coming out of my mouth, I knew that it was a dumb thing to say. When would I get used to Heretic stuff?

The man glanced back, smiling faintly as he nodded. “That’s what you were meant to see.” He gestured toward a wooden archway ahead that stuck out of the side of the cabin. There were a few piles of logs set up there, as if it was just a place to stack firewood so that it would stay out of the rain. “One at a time, take a little walk through there,” he instructed, leaning on his shovel.

Shrugging, I went first. As I walked through the the archway, I felt a slight tingle in the back of my head and in my eyes. Coming out the other side, I blinked a few times and then looked around.

Oh. Wow. Now I could see dozens of cabins around at the lake, with more boats by their docks,  and even people walking around. Not just humans either, I could see Alters of various shapes and colors around the nearest cabins, illuminated by the lights from their homes. Some of them were standing at the edge of their property, staring in my direction. When they saw me looking at them, a couple raised their hands to wave. It took a second, but I belatedly remembered to wave back.

Eventually, the other two girls joined me in standing at the edge of the cabin to watch the people. Gabriel, stepping up beside us, gave a little nod that way. “Most of our people would be asleep right now, but when they heard you were coming to visit, a lot of them found reasons to stay up.” He smiled just a little bit. “Seeing the clan heir come around for the first time is kind of a big deal.”  

My eyes pulled away from the lantern-lit figures in the distance to blink that way. “Clan heir?”

“Of course,” he confirmed. “The clan was begun by the Atherbys. Most remember Joselyn. And a lot of them remember Joshua and Lyell too. But it’s been a long time since they had an Atherby around, a direct descendant of their founder… our founder.” He looked to me, his expression soft. “And a lot of them are ashamed. Losing Joselyn’s children, letting Ruthers’ thugs take them, it tore them up. They felt like they failed her, like anything that happened to those kids was their fault.”

He sighed a little before continuing. “And others, they weren’t a part of the clan before. They joined because of Joselyn. There’s some Heretics out there who left Crossroads and the other place just to follow her, just to be around her. Seeing her daughter, it’s… important to them.”

Flinching at that, I opened and shut my mouth before swallowing hard. “I should talk to them.”

Gabriel nodded. “If you’re up for it, I thought you might stay a bit longer after we’re done. Since you don’t need as much sleep as Avalon and Shiori here, the others would love to meet you.”

I glanced to the other two girls before nodding. “Yeah.” My head bobbed up and down. “I’d love to meet the people that knew my family. I… I still don’t know very much about them. So… so if it’s okay, I’d kinda like to hear their–um, their stories. If you don’t think that’d be… bothering them.”

“Bothering them?” The man gave me a soft, somehow sad smile. “No, Felicity,” he replied, “telling you stories about your family wouldn’t be a bother. In fact, it would make a lot of us very happy.” 

******

A couple hours later, we were all sitting out on the dock near the water, using chairs that we had brought from the cabin. Gabriel was nodding with satisfaction as he examined the wooden boards that Avalon, Shiori, and I had used to carefully copy the anti-possession rune onto. “Good,” he announced. “Very good. You’re still a little shaky on the loop here, Felicity, and Shiori could use a little more work on these points at the end here. But for your first night, you’re all doing really well.”

Smiling at that announcement, the man continued. “Now I think you should each practice using the spell on each other, one at a time. I’ll provide the power and guide you through it until you can do it by yourselves. And I’ll dampen the pain a little, but you should all know what it feels like.” He paused before adding, “Unless you’d rather wait until next time to give it a shot.”

Avalon shook her head. “We don’t have a lot of time to waste, Mr. Gabriel.” She still blushed every time she spoke to or  looked at him, but at least she’d found her voice. “We’ll stay and practice.”

Nodding, I agreed. “Right, we do need to know what it feels like. So who’s going first?”

“Me.” Shiori turned slightly on the seat while pulling her sleeve up. “Go ahead, Flick.”

So, with Gabriel’s help and guidance, I used the field-engraver to start drawing the rune. It wasn’t the same one that Dare had provided. This one was from Gabriel himself, taken out of a box of them that he had carried out from the cabin.

Even as the rune started, Shiori gave a slight hiss, until the man laid his hand on her back. He did something, and she eased a little bit. But I could still tell that it wasn’t exactly comfortable. It might not have been the burning pain that it had been, but even with Gabriel’s help there was obviously no way that the rune could’ve been drawn without the subject waking up if they were asleep. So we couldn’t just go around to our friends and start drawing it on them. They’d notice. And besides, if they were possessed, every Seosten who was part of their mission would know what was happening at the same time that they did. Which pretty much meant that we had one shot at it.

Eventually, I finished drawing the rune. Gabriel took my hand and pressed it against the symbol. I felt him extend a sliver of his power through me and into what I had drawn, triggering the spell.

Obviously, nothing happened aside from the rune turning into a sweet-smelling smoke as it vanished from Shiori’s arm. She rubbed the spot a little, looked at us, and shrugged. “Boo. Guess I’m not possessed after all.”

Gabriel chuckled. “Woe be to the Seosten who tried to possess a dhampyr, or any hybrid. I’d almost like to see them try it.” Leaning back, he added, “All right, let’s go with you next, Felicity.”

I started to nod before blinking. “Oh, uh, I need to use the restroom first, actually. Do you mind?”

The man shook his head, gesturing to the cabin. “Go ahead. Head inside, turn right, second door on the left.”

On the way, I passed a few kids, Alter and human alike. They ranged in age from six up to twelve or so, all of them half-hidden behind the garden fence. When they saw me looking that way, there was a collective squeal from the group as they took off running, scattering into the darkness.  

“Hey, it’s okay!” I called. “It’s not like I’m gonna eat you guys or something. If you wanna…” I trailed off then, shaking my head before going inside. Maybe I’d see them again later.

Sure enough, a few of the kids were back again when I came out after finishing up inside. I saw a small, blue-skinned boy with dark red eyes, a pretty human girl with light blonde hair who looked like she was about eight or nine, and an amphibious figure whose gender I couldn’t make out. They were watching me just like the others had been. When I glanced that way, the two obvious Alters stammered excuses before taking off, disappearing into darkness once more.

The human girl, however, stayed behind. She raised a hand to wave while giving me a tiny smile.

Realizing that she wasn’t going to run away like the others, I stepped that way. “Hi,” I greeted her. “I’m Flick. What’s your name?”

“Me?” the little girl replied with a cute, incredibly endearing little blush. “I–I’m Tabby.”

“Hi, Tabby.” I paused before glancing off in the distance, the way the others had gone. “You didn’t leave with your friends?”

She glanced over her shoulder then before shaking her head. Her voice was soft. “I wanted to meet you.” Turning back, she added, even more quietly. “And I’m sorry about your mommy.”

I flinched. “Yeah, I guess that’s kind of a big story around here, isn’t it?”

Nodding, Tabby hesitated before adding, “My mommy’s not here either.”

The thought of this adorable, innocent-looking little girl being left without a mother made me cringe. If her mom was killed by a Heretic, I’d just… Shaking that off, I asked, “She’s not… here? Is she alive? Do you know where she is?”

“I think she’s alive,” Tabby answered, looking away for a moment. “She’s a long ways away.”

“Then you can find her, right?” I asked, my voice quiet as I hesitantly put a hand out to touch her arm. “We’ll both find our moms. We’ll get them back, okay? Your mom and my mom. They’re alive, so we’ll get them back. You can’t give up on her, right?”

Her head bobbed up and down at that. “Uh huh. Mommy said I had to be brave. She said I could help people. But… but I miss her.” She squirmed a little then, looking ashamed of the admission.

“Hey.” I squeezed her arm, trying to be reassuring. “It’s okay to miss your mom. It doesn’t make you any less brave. You’re learning how to help people, right?”

Again, the girl nodded. “I’m trying to,” she answered quietly. “Sometimes it’s really hard.”

“I know what you mean.” Shaking my head, I gave her a little smile. “But we just keep trying, right? We get better, and eventually, we’ll find our moms.”

“Uh huh.” Tabby looked past me then, back to the lake. “You should go. They’re waiting.”

“Right, yeah. But I’ll see you later, okay?” Waiting until she nodded, I headed back down to the dock once more.

“Everything okay?” Shiori asked as I resumed my seat.

“Yup.” I smiled a little. “Just saw some of the kids up there.” Glancing that way, I laughed. “See?” Several of the children, including Tabby, were standing just at the edge of the bushes near the beach, watching us.

Gabriel looked that way before shaking his head with a chuckle as the kids scattered once more. “They’re supposed to be in bed. I guess they couldn’t sleep either.”

“I hope they don’t get in trouble…” Biting my lip at the thought, I shook it off. “So, are we doing this?” I pulled my sleeve up, turning my arm that way. “Who gets to draw on me?”

Avalon did, taking her turn to carefully sketch out the rune with Gabriel’s help. It stung a little, enough to make me wince even after the man softened the feeling. When it was done, the smoke sizzled off just like it had with Shiori.

“Whelp,” I remarked while rubbing my arm. “I’m not possessed either. Valley’s turn?”

“Yes,” Gabriel confirmed. “We’ll do one more. After that, we’ll see about letting Avalon and Shiori get some sleep while you meet some of your family’s friends. Just don’t be surprised if they get a little overly-excited.”

“After all, they’ve been waiting a long time to see you.”

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Sharkhunt 23-01

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday that was focused on Wyatt and Abigail. If you missed it,  you may wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

“So, wait, you’re seriously telling me that all these guys were built by one Heretic?”

It was Monday, January 29th, a couple of days since my staff had been upgraded and almost a week since the meeting with the Committee, and… and when I had killed Doxer. Not that it had gotten any easier to think about. It was a good thing I didn’t need much sleep, because every time I closed my eyes, I saw the older boy’s grapple tearing through his throat, and his look of surprise.

Luckily, I had plenty of distractions to keep my mind off it. Two of which were sitting on the arm of the couch in the rec room with me. Jaq and Gus, my new little cyberform mice, had spent the past week gradually warming up to me. They were still pretty skittish, but they listened to what I said and didn’t seem to act like I was about to rip them apart every time I picked the little guys up.

I’d asked about the fact that they seemed to be accepting me pretty quickly for someone who had killed their last master, and Professor Dare had explained that it was purposeful. The cyberforms were designed to latch onto and obey whoever their owner was, similar to the way that a baby animal imprinted on its mother. When the old owner died, the imprint programming would wipe and set up to latch onto a new one. They didn’t forget their old owner, they were just conditioned to accept a new one relatively easily after the old one died.  

Yeah, apparently unlike most of our Heretic weapons, cyberforms weren’t buried with their owner when the Heretic died. Instead, a sort-of fake stand-in was used while the real thing was passed to someone else. That… somehow made me feel a little better. The idea of burying these guys while they were still ‘alive’ just because their owner had died had made me kind of queasy.

Vanessa, Tristan, and Sean were in there with me, waiting for it to be time to go to class. The latter gave Vulcan a little scratch behind the ears (I still wasn’t sure how the metal creatures felt things like that, but they sure seemed to like it) while shrugging. “Sort of. I mean, at first it was just one guy that made the cyberforms. But a few other Heretics managed to work out enough of his blueprints and reverse-engineer them to make their own. That’s how they ended up in both Eden’s Garden and Crossroads. But yeah, I’d say about seventy percent of them were made by one guy.”

“But…” I paused, watching as Vulcan stepped closer to the couch. He lowered his head while making an inviting noise for the two mice to climb on. Jaq and Gus both looked at each other, then up at me as though waiting for permission. I gestured. “Go on, but don’t forget your brother.”

Immediately, the two of them hopped over behind where Herbie was sitting, carrying the little guy between them as they scampered onto the mechanical dog’s back. They had really taken to their new ‘big brother’, carrying him around all the time. Hell, the first time one of the others had reached for my favorite rock without permission had been the first time that I heard Jaq and Gus hiss as they put themselves in front of him. They were already fiercely protective of Herbie.

As the three cyberforms (and one rockform) bounded around the room together, I shook my head before continuing. “But why? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love the guys, but…” Gesturing to the mechanical snake that lay stretched across the back of the couch, her head on Tristan’s shoulder, I finished, “Why did he make ‘robot animals that turn into weapons’? And how are they so life-like? I mean, Heretic technology is impressive, but these guys seem like they’re actually alive.

Vanessa spoke up then, her hand slowly stroking gently along Bobbi-Bobbi’s side as she explained. “The man who invented them is named Harrison Fredericks. He’s pretty much a recluse now, but about twenty-five years ago, he was part of an expedition to another dimension. See, there was this really powerful witch named Telsima–”

“Wait,” I quickly interrupted. “Witch. Those aren’t normal Strangers, right? I mean–” I coughed, shaking my head. “I mean they aren’t the kind that set off the Heretic Sense, because they’re…”

“Humans that were bonded with some other Stranger to become natural Heretics,” Vanessa finished for me. “Basically, yes. Usually it’s a human that’s bonded with a Stranger who gives no benefit beyond unlocking the ability to use magic. But that’s not quite right. Sometimes they set off the Heretic Sense, and sometimes they don’t. It depends on the Stranger they’re bonded with.”  

That made sense. After all, vampires set off the Heretic sense, and they were basically natural Heretics. Actually, was there any difference between natural Heretics and vampires beyond the fact that they apparently couldn’t do magic? I made a mental note to ask Senny about that.

“Okay,” I replied, “so there was a witch named Telsima, and some kind of dimensional portal?”

“A dimensional portal that she created,” Vanessa confirmed. “They killed the witch, but the portal was still there. So…. Crossroads sort-of set up an expedition to go through and see what they could find. Harrison Fredericks was one of the only two who actually made it back here. He said they had to fight some people over there that had… you know, powers, like Heretics do. Only they seemed to be human. The point is, there was one that had all these mechanical animals helping him. Fredericks killed him, and suddenly he could make the things. It was as if the guy he killed had a superpower specifically geared toward ‘building super-advanced cybernetic animals’. Then when Fredericks killed him, he inherited the same power with the same focus.”

“A human being who had the superpower of ‘build things’?” I stared at her for a moment after that. “So this Fredericks guy kills the alternate-reality human, gains his super-inventor power, and starts making all these guys until some of his plans get out and other Heretics manage to copy them?”

“Then he went into reclusion,” she finished with a little nod. “Pretty much, yeah. Sometimes he still comes out with new ones, but he sells them to the highest bidder, whichever side they’re on.”

Sitting back against the couch at that, I stared at Vulcan as he continued to take Jaq, Gus, and Herbie for a ride around the room. “Wow. And here I thought Heretic-society was just weird.”

“Oh, it’s definitely weird,” Tristan informed me with a quick smile. “Just weird with a purpose.”

Pushing himself up, Sean nodded. “That’s pretty much our motto, yup. Weird with a purpose. Anyway, you guys ready to go?”

Checking my watch, I saw that he was right. Stranger Truths was about to start in a few minutes. “Yup, let’s go from Professor Moon’s class to Nevada’s.” Winking at the other girl as she blushed, I reached down to pick up my three little buddies from Vulcan’s back, tucking them into the pocket of my uniform jacket before walking out with the others to head for class.

******

“So,” Nevada announced about twenty minutes later. “Who can tell me what one of the most important effects for a Heretic to protect themselves against is?” True to form, the bubbly young teacher was dressed in white shorts, a bright pink top with a white smiley face on it, and sandals. She looked more like she was ready for a day on the beach than to teach a class about monsters.

Across the room, Travis Colby raised a hand. “Uh, death?” he asked with a quirked eyebrow.

Nevada gave a laugh at that, along with the rest of the class. “Okay, yes, that too. But this is almost as important. Anyone?” Glancing around, she shook her head before finishing, “Mind control. See? Mind control is one of the most dangerous problems that a Heretic can face, because it turns all their power not just against themselves, but against everyone they care about. And in its basic form, mind control or something similar to it isn’t exactly a rare power for a Stranger to have. You’ve all heard the stories about monsters who can control people.”

“So what do we do about it?” That was Sands, her hand raised as she spoke. “Isn’t there a way to protect against being controlled, if it’s such a common thing?”  

Nevada nodded. “Yes, there is. By the time you graduate, most Heretics are given the chance to absorb several different powers that block most kinds of mind control. I believe it’s your junior or senior year when they focus on that kind of thing, mostly because you’ll be strong enough by that point to actually kill the Strangers who can give you that sort of protection.”

Jasmine’s hand shot into the air then, her voice pointed. “So someone like, say, the head of security for a place like this school should have every protection there is against mind control?”

I knew I wasn’t imagining the fact that almost everyone in the class not-so-subtly turned slightly to look at me, including Jasmine herself. They were all looking my way, their thoughts obvious.

“Okay, yeah.” Nevada gave a knowing nod at that. “Obviously, we all know what you’re talking about. The boy who invaded the school not-so-long ago with a vendetta against Flick here.”

“He controlled Professor Kohaku,” Gordon announced flatly. “How did he do that? She’s head of security, shouldn’t she be immune to being controlled? If not, that’s a pretty big security hole.”

Beside me, Avalon spoke up. “She is immune, just like all the teachers are. He’s just… different.”

“Different how?” Gavin Rish asked, his hand in the air. “How does some little kid control our head of security? That just seems, y’know, weak.” He gave a shrug then, his eyes never leaving me.

“Never judge a book by its cover,” Nevada reminded them. “Just because the boy looks young and helpless doesn’t mean he can’t have one of the most powerful mind control abilities in the world. Appearances can be deceiving.” She let that hang for a moment before continuing. “But to reiterate, yes, graduating Heretics tend to take on protections from many forms of mind control. By the time they reach Professor Kohaku’s level, they’re immune to pretty much all of it. At least, all of it that can be protected against. Obviously, there are always exceptions. It’s like the Bystanders say about computer viruses:  every time there’s an uncrackable defense, someone will come up with a way to break it. It just so happens that the boy who came that night was… special, somehow.” She trailed off for a moment, obviously thinking about it before shaking her head. “Anyway, there you go. High-level Heretics are immune to almost every form of mind control, but no defense is always going to be one hundred percent effective. Remember that, the next time you start getting big heads. There’s always gonna be someone whose power can counter yours.”

Not content to let it go just like that, Douglas spoke up. “But who was he? What kind of little kid, even if he just looked like a little kid, could break in here and mind-whammy the head of security? And why would he do all that just to make everyone go after Flick? What was the point? And–”

“I heard he was Denuvus.” That was Shiori’s roommate, Rebecca. The tiny girl was one of the only people who wasn’t looking at me. Her attention was on Nevada. “You know, in disguise.”

“Don’t be stupid,” the always-charming Zeke blurted then, his eyes rolling dramatically at Rebecca. “Denuvus doesn’t exist. Or if he ever did, he’s been dead and gone for a long time. He’s just a bogeyman that Strangers use to threaten each other, and us. He’s not real.”

“Well, then you explain it,” Rebecca shot back at him. “Some little kid has enough oomph behind his mind control power to puppet the head of security? Either our security sucks, or he’s someone with an unbeatable mind control power. Oh, and guess what? When he took control, he said his name. He said his name, Zeke. Who the hell does that sound like to you?”

The boy shrugged. “It sounds like someone with a massive mind control power who heard the same rumors you did and decided to use them to give himself a scary reputation right away.”

That just made a bunch of people in the class start talking over each other. The Heretic-born were arguing about whether Denuvus could actually exist, while the Bystander-kin were trying to butt in to ask who the hell he was. Meanwhile, all I could do was sit there and try not to look like I already knew the answer to all that. Because of course Denuvus was real. Twister had already told me about how she had been killed by Fossor because one of the other Pooka had done a job for him by stealing some of Denuvus’s blood, and then tried to stiff the necromancer by selling it to someone else. Fossor had gotten it after all and used it to give Ammon his powers.

So Denuvus was real. They were right about that much. But now some of them thought that Ammon was Denuvus. And I had to pretend that I didn’t know what any of this was about.

Sometimes I didn’t know which was worse, all the questions I didn’t have any answers to, or the ones that I did have answers to but had to pretend that I didn’t. Growing up, I had been all about getting news out there, about exposing the secrets that people tried to hide. Now I was burying most of the secrets that I knew, and sometimes I didn’t really like how that felt. I didn’t like it at all.

Finally, Erin Redcliffe managed to speak over everyone else. “What do you think, Nevada?” She gestured toward our teacher while the rest of the class quieted down. “Does Denuvus exist?”

Something a little strange happened then. I swore that Nevada’s head started to nod before her expression twisted a little bit, like she was fighting against something. It only lasted for a brief second, before her smile returned. “Well, some people say he does, others say he doesn’t,” she answered noncommittally. “But we do know from what happened in the dorms that the level of mind control that Denuvus is rumored to have does exist. So we can–” She stopped then, head tilting a little. Again, it looked like she was about to say something, or trying to say something. But that moment passed as well, and she walked to the board. “Anyway, let’s start talking about the different kinds of protection there are against being controlled like that, shall we?”

There were still more questions about Denuvus, but Nevada mostly side-stepped them. She only answered what she had to, repeatedly pulling the class back to the main subject. Which was weird, since she never objected to us going off on tangents, particularly when they were at least semi-related to the subject. She never avoided questions like that, and I had absolutely never seen her act like she did when it had looked like she wanted to say something but then changed the subject. It worried me, because it felt like another problem when we really couldn’t afford one.

What was going on with Nevada, and why did she act so weird when Denuvus was mentioned?

******  

“You sure you’re ready for this?” I asked Avalon hours later. It was just past curfew, as the two of us sat on her bed. My head was nuzzled against her shoulder as I held her hand.

Squeezing my fingers, the other girl snorted before giving the top of my head a gentle kiss. “Of course I’m ready, Chambers. You have no idea how long I’ve been looking forward to this.”

“That long, huh?” I teased, straightening up to look at her with a little smile while giving the girl a gentle poke in the shoulder. “Did you ever think you’d actually get the chance?”  

“I knew I would,” she answered flatly, though a tiny smile tugged at her trying-to-be-stoic lips. Despite herself, she couldn’t quite hold back her emotions. “I don’t give up that easily.”

“Oh,” I replied, giggling despite myself. “I guess we should go for it then.” She nodded once more, and I heaved myself to my feet, offering a hand to the other girl. As she took it, I helped her up and we went to the door. Peeking out, I looked both ways, then headed out while beckoning for her to follow.

Sneaking out of the dorm was easy enough. After all, I had a pass to be up and around all night long, past curfew. Which meant that between it and my item-sense, I could let Avalon know when it was safe to move around. Together, the two of us quickly headed across the grounds and to the edge of the shield where the path down to the beach was. With a quick look to each other, we stepped across and then waited for a moment.

Nothing. Gaia had promised that we would be added to the exceptions for the night, but I still let out a breath when we didn’t have a bunch of security jump down our throats. Nodding to Avalon, I walked ahead as we moved toward the predetermined meeting spot

“Hi, guys!” Shiori stage-whispered, practically giving me a heart attack while popping up out of the bushes just barely outside the range of my item-sense. She waved. “You made it.”

“Did you have a hard time getting past Rebecca?” Avalon asked, not having jumped at all.

In answer, Shiori glanced toward me before blushing as her head shook. “She–umm, she doesn’t know.”

I blushed as well. In preparation for this, the other girl and I had made it a point to sneak out now and then over the past couple of nights, always letting Rebecca ‘catch us’ sneaking back in while acting… well, embarrassing, to put it simply. If Shiori’s roommate did notice that she was out of bed tonight, we wanted her to think that we had just snuck out for another… date.

“Is it here?” I asked, looking around. “They said they’d leave it right out under that tree, but I don’t–”

Shiori held up what looked like a wooden pencil box with a combination lock on it. “Right where they said it’d be.”

She held it out, and I took the thing. Carefully inserting the combination that I had been given, I looked back to the others. “You guys ready for this?”

They both nodded, and I opened the box before quickly dropping it. As I did so, a brilliant blue burst of energy shot out, shaping itself into a portal that hovered there in the air. Together, the three of us moved through the portal.

Stepping out the other side, we found ourselves standing on the edge of a crystal clear lake, illuminated by the moonlight. There was a simple wooden cabin in the distance, with a dock that led out to a sailboat. But most importantly, standing directly in front of us was a man. A tall, handsome, dark-skinned man who stood with one hand resting lightly on the shovel beside him.

“Hey there. Good to see you again, Felicity,” Gabriel Prosser announced. “And these must be your girlfriends. Shiori and Avalon, right?”

Beside me, Avalon made a noise that sounded an awful lot like a high-pitched squeak. It was the single most surprising, strangest sound that I had ever heard come directly from my roommate.

“Uh,” I looked that way. “Avalon, are you…” I trailed off, staring. Not because there was a problem, not because we had suddenly been attacked or something had gone horribly wrong. No, I stared because Avalon had the single goofiest, absurd smile on her face. She looked utterly enraptured, like a little preteen meeting her idol.

“Oh my god,” I managed to get out.

“Avalon’s a fangirl.”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-07

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Those last words had barely left my mouth before I abruptly found myself standing in a different position without any warning whatsoever. I had been by the door with my hand on it. Now, I was suddenly standing next to Avalon with my hand on her back instead of the door. Professor Dare, meanwhile, was standing where I had just been, with the door open in her hand.  

An instant after that, and the small lobby area was suddenly filled with several more people. I saw a handful of adult Heretics, accompanied by that Spanish woman from the Committee, Elisabet. All of them had their weapons drawn. In the counselor’s case, she held a what looked like a combination of a pistol crossbow and a sawed-off shotgun, with the dual barrels for the gun mounted below the crossbow part. Neither she, nor the other Heretics with her, looked happy.  

“Your response time is admirable.” That was Gaia, her voice cool as she regarded them, not even so much as twitching at the Heretic’s abrupt arrival. “But your locking spells could use some work.”

Dare gave a single, faux-casual nod while drumming her fingers lightly along the door that she was holding. “It didn’t take much effort to break the door security. Barely even knew it was there.”

“You?” Elisabet’s eyebrow raised as she looked at Dare with an expression that I couldn’t read. “You broke the security seal instead of simply using the passcode? Why would you do that?”

My brain caught up with what was going on then. Professor Dare and Gaia were covering for me. If the Committee found out that I had this security-breaking power, they’d be even more suspicious than they already were. Hell, they’d probably haul me back in for a much more intense round of questions, Gaia or no Gaia. And I was pretty sure they wouldn’t listen to ‘but I just got it and didn’t even know about it.’ So Dare had thought quickly enough to swap places with me. Or Gaia swapped us, I wasn’t sure which. Either way, they made sure she was the one at the door.

“Why?” Dare echoed, raising one shoulder in a shrug. “It was a teaching moment. We wanted the girls to see how fast your response time is. As the headmistress said, pretty good. But we were expecting it to be harder to break the seal. Whoever cast it might want to work on that a bit.”

From the look on Elisabet’s face, she wasn’t very happy about their security being questioned. Her voice was tight. “As you well-know, the locking magic used for those inside the building is relatively minor. It’s only meant to keep people from accidentally wandering where they shouldn’t be. And I wouldn’t call breaking a Committee-ordered security enchantment a ‘learning experience.’”

“I don’t know,” Dare replied easily before nodding toward Avalon and me. “Would you say you learned something here, girls?” When we both nodded, she smiled faintly. “There you go.”

Elisabet turned to say something quietly to the men who had teleported in with her. They gave us a searching look for a moment before turning to leave while holstering their weapons once more. Then the woman stepped over and said something to Gaia. I heard the word ‘false alarm’ before she gave the rest of us a look that promised a lot more problems if we set off another security alert before spinning on her heel. She took two steps before vanishing from sight in mid-motion.

I wanted to say something, but after seeing that I waited until we were all the way out of the building and a decent distance away from it (past the security line) before speaking up. “Is it safe?”

Rather than using a coin or even Dare’s music box, Gaia just made a simple hand gesture, and I felt a popping in my ears before she nodded. “We may speak freely now. No one will overhear.”

“I’m sorry,”  I started weakly. “I didn’t know that was gonna happen. If…” I paused, swallowing a bit, “If they figured out that I was the one who broke that seal, it wouldn’t be good, would it?”

It was Gaia who spoke. “No,” she answered calmly. “They would probably not react very well.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Dare added while giving me a brief, reassuring look. “Sometimes it takes awhile for powers to show themselves. Especially if they’re not very obvious. And, of course, when you get several that…” she paused, grimacing before finishing with a soft, “… quickly.”  

Flinching despite myself, I nodded slowly before looking back at the bag that held Doxer’s mice. “And sometimes we inherit things other than powers,” I murmured under my breath. Hearing a slight squeak inside, I opened it up once more. The mice were still huddled there, practically clutching each other as they stared at me with what looked like genuine terror on their little faces.

Wincing at the sight, I glanced up. “Oh. Um… I think I need to spend a little time with these guys.”

“It might have to wait,” Avalon muttered. “We have company, and I don’t think they’ll leave again.”

Looking the way she was, I saw the rest of the team coming from across the field.. And from the look of things, I was pretty sure Avalon was right about them not waiting around anymore. They were going to want to talk about what happened, both during the hunt and with the Committee.

“Okay, guys,” I murmured, looking back down at the bag briefly. “We’re gonna go meet some friends, all right? I’ll introduce you to Vulcan, and you can all talk about how I’m not a monster.”

“Just spend time with them,” Gaia encouraged quietly. “It takes some time for cyberforms to bond to their Heretics. Particularly after the old bond is severed so abruptly. But it will happen.”   

By that point, the others had arrived. Sands moved right up to me, looked simultaneously abashed and nervous as she kicked the ground. “Hey, uh, Flick. About earlier, I didn’t–” She flinched noticeably. “I didn’t think about what happened, what you had to do. I was just–I guess I didn’t–”

“It’s okay,” I interrupted, giving the other girl a slight smile. “I get it. Trust me, I get it. You don’t have to apologize. You were just… excited.” My hand went up to grab hers, even as I told myself that I could be touching a Seosten-spy right then. “Besides, at least he won’t hurt anyone else.”

Her head bobbed up and down, sending her brown braid bouncing. “Yeah, sure. No more victims for that asshole.” Shrugging then, she added thoughtfully, “Too bad Trice got away. But hey, Garden can’t ignore what he did anymore, right? Maybe they’ll do something about it.”

It was a far cry from the girl at the beginning of the year who had insisted that Eden’s Garden were all psychopaths. At least she thought it was possible that they’d step in on the Trice issue.  

Gaia, however, shook her head. “Unfortunately, it seems that Trice has fled even his own people. Possibly to escape judgment or other fallout from the results of this attack. Or,” she added while sounding thoughtful, “perhaps he feared retaliation from his accomplices for the failure.”

I was pretty sure that she’d said it that way just to see if there was even the slightest reaction from Sands, Scout, Sean, Columbus, or even Professor Dare. But if there was, I didn’t see any. Which made sense. A probably-millennia-old Seosten infiltrator wasn’t going to be tripped up by showing any reaction to that. Or maybe they weren’t even here. Maybe they were in Deveron, or Koren, or… yeah, whatever happened, we had to get that choker from Pace. This paranoia thing sucked.

“Figures,” Sean muttered with obvious annoyance. “The hijueputa runs away like a coward.”

Columbus shook his head. “He can’t hide forever. Someone’ll find him, right? I mean, even Eden’s Garden’s gotta want to talk to him about all this. And there’s gonna be Crossroads Heretics looking for him.” He glanced toward Gaia then. “Right? They can’t just let him walk away from it.”

“Correct,” the woman confirmed simply. “He will be found. And when he is, I’m sure that there will be many questions he will be made to answer. But for now, I suggest you all try to get some rest.”

“Some rest?” Sands sounded absolutely incredulous at that. “Are you kidding me? We’ve still gotta hear about what happened. You guys need to tell us everything, everything.” Pausing then, she added with a gesture toward the bag in my hand. “Starting with, what’s in there?”

“In here?” I echoed, lifting the bag thoughtfully. “… I guess they’re a couple new friends.

“And I’m gonna have to talk to Nevada, because I’m pretty sure I know just what to do with them.”

******

“I hate this, Flick,” Shiori announced a few days later as the two of us walked along the beach on our way back from feeding Choo. He actually spent a decent amount of time in the container that the other girl had had made for him, but we still had to take him off the school grounds to be fed, since opening the container on the grounds would’ve meant setting off the security alerts. And call me crazy, but I really didn’t want to risk doing something like that again after that bit with Elisabet.

Besides, he still spent plenty of time out there in the special area we’d set aside for him. Shiori didn’t want the little guy to be trapped in what was essentially a cage constantly, even if it was a lot bigger on the inside than it should’ve been. Though from what I’d heard her talking with Avalon about, the two had a plan to make the whole thing better that would be interesting if it worked.

The other girl continued, head shaking. “I hate not talking to Columbus about all this stuff. He’s … he’s my brother. But I can’t even–I can’t trust him. What if he’s–” She stopped, making a face while putting an arm against her stomach. “What if he’s one of them? What if he’s possessed?” Even though we were both out on the beach and using a privacy coin (as was pretty much usual by that point), she still kept her voice quiet.

Wincing, I reached out to catch her hand, turning the girl around to face me. “Hey, I know. I know it sucks. Trust me, it…” Trailing off, I gave a soft sigh before interlacing our fingers. “It won’t be long, okay? We already heard from Roxa and the others. They’ve got an idea of where Pace’s pack is gonna be in about a month. Between them, Wonderland, and the rest of us, we’ve gotta be able to get that necklace away from her. After that, we just have to use it to find the Seosten.”

“A month.” Shiori’s voice was weak. “I…” She hesitated before straightening, giving me a nod that was a little more firm. “I know. I know. It’s the only way. I just… I just wish we didn’t have to wait that long. I wish there was some way to find out for sure right now, just to know. I hate looking at Columbus and not… and not knowing if it’s him looking back, Flick. I hate it so much.”   

God. Just standing there like that, I wanted to make it better. I wanted so badly to just wave a magic wand and solve the problem for her. I wanted to tell Shiori that she could trust her brother, that he really was her brother. I wanted to fix everything for her. And I never, ever wanted to see her look at me with that pleading, puppy-dog expression and not be able to do anything about it.

Instead, all I could do was embrace the girl. “I’m sorry,” I murmured. “I swear, we’ll fix it as soon as we can. We’ll find out who the spy is and get rid of them. Whether it’s Columbus or anyone else, we’ll get them back, okay?” I leaned back, staring at her. “I promise, we’ll find out the truth.”

Shiori watched me for a moment like that as we stood on the edge of the water, with the sun just starting to set across the horizon. The way the light made her face glow a little bit was mesmerizing, and I found myself lost in her gaze, unwilling and unable to break the comfortable silence. Because in that moment, we were communicating plenty without saying a single word.

Eventually, Shiori lifted her hand to gently touch my face. “Flick,” she whispered, her voice barely audible against the sound of the waves lapping against the sand. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times, as if she wanted to say something else, but couldn’t find the right words. In the end, she found another way of expressing what she felt. Leaning over, the other girl gently touched her lips to mine, giving me a soft, exquisite kiss. It felt different than kissing Avalon, yet somehow just as powerful. And just like those times, it took my breath away.

After what was entirely too brief of a time like that, the girl pulled back to blush, shifting on her feet. “Sorry,” she mumbled adorably without looking at me. “I just–I really wanted to–It felt like-”

“Well see,” I interrupted before she could continue, “now I’m really in a predicament.”

Shiori blinked at me a couple times as she brought herself under control. “In a predicament?”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, see… now I can’t figure out if I want to kiss you again, or just listen to you babble some more. Gotta tell ya, I’m leaning toward the babbling. It’s really sweet.”

She flushed even more at that, but before she could actually say anything, I leaned in to touch my lips to hers, giving a little smile at the sound of her gasp. “Then again, kissing’s really good too.”

A tiny whimper escaped the other girl before her arms snaked their way around me once more. I felt her nod almost imperceptibly, our lips still close to one another. “Uh huh,” she whispered. “Really good.”

We stayed like that for a minute, leaning against each other while collecting ourselves. It felt good, just standing there with Shiori. Eventually, however, she pulled back and cleared her throat.

“I guess we need that month anyway, since we still have to learn that spell from Prosser.”

My head bobbed quickly. “Right, yeah, he promised to set up some sessions for that. Knowing which of our friends is possessed isn’t helpful unless we know how to kick the bitch out of their body. We learn the anti-possession spell, then find out who she’s possessing, and kick her ass out of them.”

“And then kick her ass in general,” Shiori added firmly.

I nodded, smiling slightly. “And then kick her ass in general.”

Squeezing my hand, the other girl asked, “Um, what about Trice? Has he…”

My head shook. “He hasn’t said much of anything, really. Gaia says we just have to give him time to stew on everything. She keeps talking about having patience. Which I guess at this point means leaving him in the cell and not talking to him for a few days. She’s making sure he gets fed and whatever else, but other than that, he’s pretty much left on his own. Solitary confinement and all that.”

Biting her lip, Shiori hesitated before asking, “And Fahsteth? What about that other meeting, the one that the Seosten heard about?”

“They’re rescheduling,” I answered with a grimace. “I’m not sure when, exactly. But sooner than before, hopefully. We’ve gotta get to him before the Seosten do. But when we do, we’ll keep quiet about it. Like the Trice thing. We’ll keep it quiet until the meeting was supposed to happen. Then see if any of our new friends show up. You know, counter-ambush style.”  

Shiori nodded, smiling at me in that familiar way. “I guess, if nothing else, the guy makes good shark-bait.”

Before I could respond to that with more than a snicker, the approach of someone else drew my attention. Seeing Nevada walking down the beach, I quickly disabled the coin and cleared my throat. “Oh, hey, Nevada.” Jeez, it still felt weird to call someone who was supposed to be our teacher by her first name. Then again, having a teacher who looked like a cheerleader was weird to begin with.

“Hey guys!” she chirped, giving us a dazzling smile. “Everything okay?”

I shrugged. “Neither of us have been attacked or teleported away to an alien planet today, so that’s a tick in the plus column.”

Laughing, the other woman reached behind her back to pull out a familiar object. “Well, here you go.” Flipping my staff around, she held it out toward me.

“You finished already?” I took the staff, looking it over. The only visible change was an additional half-hidden button as well as two white teardrop shaped marks about six inches from either end of the staff. “I know, I know, quick turnaround and all that. But I thought you’d need at least a little more time.”

She grinned at me. “It’s like I told you before, we figure out how to do these things quick. Gotta get the Heretics their weapons back. Besides,” she added with a wink, “The staff’s already got the portals at the ends for your sand. It wasn’t hard to add the new ones.”

Shiori blinked at that, squinting at the weapon in my hands. “New portals? For more sand?”

“Nope.” I shook my head. “Not for more sand. For something else. Are they…” I looked to Nevada.

She indicated the new button. “Give it a shot, they were making themselves at home last time I checked on them.”

My thumb pressed it, and immediately two small portals were generated right where the teardrop marks were. They were just large enough for a pair of tiny mechanical mice to poke their heads out, sniffing curiously before emerging onto the staff. Despite the fact that I was holding it vertically, both seemed completely at home crawling along it.

“Hey guys,” I spoke up, drawing their attention. The two mice quickly scrambled to the middle of the staff to meet each other, staring at me. They weren’t quite as skittish as they had been, but it was obviously going to take awhile for us to get to the level of trust that we needed. I liked them a lot, actually. But I didn’t want to rush things. They were just starting to open up to me and stop looking at me like I was about to feed them into some kind of industrial grinder. Time, it would just take time.

Rotating the staff carefully to hold it horizontally, I reached into my pocket for a handful nuts. Metal nuts that was, as in the kind that went with bolts. Coming out with them, I held the handful of metal up to the little cyber-mice. They hesitated, but quickly took the offered treat.

“Did you ever find out what their names were?” Shiori asked, glancing to me.

My head shook. “No,” I replied. “I don’t know what their names were. I dunno if he even had names for them. But I do.” Lifting my hand slowly, I pointed to the slightly smaller one, then the other. “This is Jaq, and that’s Gus.”

Nevada and Shiori both grinned at that, the latter reaching out a finger to them. “Jaq and Gus. That’s great. Hiya, Jaq. Hey, Gus.” She held her finger there, letting the little guys sniff it for a moment.

“Give the staff a spin,” Nevada encouraged, nodding. “Trust me, they’re fine.”

I hesitated, but she seemed confident. So I stepped back for room and spun my weapon, slowly at first to watch the mice before slowly picking up speed. No matter how fast I spun it, however, they stayed attached to the thing. “How?”

“Trade secret,” she replied with a wink. “But basically magic magnets. They’ll stay attached as long as you want them to.”

As I stopped and let the mice go back to exploring the staff, Shiori asked, “So you had Nevada make… portals in your weapon to summon your mice? That’s kinda cool.”

“Oh, it’s very cool,” I replied. “First, they’ve got a little home in there. I mean, they can come out too. But they’ve got a whole little house in there. Technically the portals link to a box that’s in my room. That’s where they are when they’re in there. But they come out through there.”

Nodding, the other girl hesitated. “Okay, but… what do they do once they’re here? Like, explore and spy on people or whatever? They look like they’d be pretty good at that.”

“Sure, sure,” I confirmed slyly, giving Nevada a quick look. “But they do a lot more than that. Is it…?”

“Go for it,” she replied, looking just as eager as I was. “Just tell the little guys it’s time to fight.”

“Hey, Jaq, Gus,” I spoke quickly. The mice stopped what they were doing and turned their tiny heads to peek up at me. “It’s time to fight.”

Immediately, they both took off in opposite directions. As I held the staff up, the mice ran to either end, clinging onto it before abruptly changing shape. In the process, they seemed to physically bond themselves with the weapon itself, latching on in several spots so that it was impossible to tell that they weren’t part of the thing to begin with.

Barely a handful of seconds after I’d said the words, and the transformation was complete. At one end of the staff, Jaq had turned into a slightly smaller version of the short-sword that he had been under Doxer.  Only the blade though, without the hilt. Meanwhile, at the other end, Gus became a smaller version of the grapple-hook.

Carefully, I spun the staff once more, checking the weight. It would take a bit to get used to, but it wasn’t too bad. And this way, my weapon had a couple more tricks to it. The blade on one end that could cut things, and a grapple-hook with an attached energy line that would both be wickedly dangerous in combat once I learned how to use it properly. Plus, the grapple would drastically improve my maneuverability when used in conjunction with the staff’s kinetic boosts.

“Oh yeah,” I muttered, spinning the now-bladed staff around once more. “This I could get used to.

“I could really… really get used to it.”

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The Third Degree 21-05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… in more than one way.”

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The Third Degree 21-04

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Please note, there was a commissioned Mini-Interlude focusing on Flick sparring with a couple other classmates posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, feel free to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

For five seconds that felt like at least that many eternities, I did nothing. Nothing. I didn’t move, I didn’t speak, I didn’t even breathe. I just stood there, the words heard through my fox rebounding around inside my head. They certainly trust my host. They certainly trust my host. My host. My host. The Chambers child trusts me. And so do her little girlfriends. My host.

The words pounded their way through my head like a sledgehammer repeatedly hitting me, again and again. Even as the bile rose in my throat, the sense of betrayal making me physically ill, the words kept hitting me again and again. Host. Host. The woman was a Seosten. She was a Seosten, and she had been spying on me through… through one of the others. Not Shiori. Not Avalon. But any of the others. Any of them. Anyone I trusted. It could be anyone I trusted except for Shiori and Avalon. Any of them. The people I trusted. The people I’d confided in. The people I liked. One of them had been taken, puppeted by this Seosten in order to spy on me, manipulate me. She had taken over one of my friends, had stripped their freedom away and forced them to betray the rest of us. One of my friends had been enslaved by this… this… bitch.

And she… was coming this way.

Slowly, my own body turned to face back down the beach. Sand rose up around me in a thick cloud, the grains rubbing and grinding against each other as they spun to make a slight buzzing sound like an angry swarm of insects.

That was my first instinct. Attack. Fight. The Seosten was right there. She was right there. Who knew when I’d get this chance again. She didn’t know that I knew about her. She didn’t know that I’d overheard what she said. I could hit her right then and end this whole thing for good.

Except, was it even possible for me to take her down? She was a Seosten. I had no idea what they were capable of. I knew that one half-Seosten had a perfect memory and the other had been an Olympic-level gymnast since he was a child with barely any training. Were those ingrained abilities every normal Seosten had? Or was it a benefit of the half-human physiology mixing? I didn’t know. I couldn’t know. But what I did know was that they were incredibly dangerous. Dangerous enough to rule over a good portion of the universe for longer than human history. They were dangerous enough that the Fomorians, one of whom had taken several powerful Heretics to take down, couldn’t steamroll over them. So what chance did I have at taking down this Seosten before she either escaped or slapped me down and either killed me or took over my body?

Plus, even if I happened to win, I wouldn’t be ending it, would I? I’d heard what she said. There were two others involved in this besides her. At least two. There was whoever she was talking to, as well as that Manakel she’d mentioned. Even if I killed her by some miracle, there were still two others. Others whose identities would be a complete mystery to me. If I killed this Seosten, that was it. I’d have no other lead, no way of finding the others or getting any more information. The absolute best-case scenario of my starting a fight right now was throwing away any chance I had at getting more information out of her, of using this Seosten to find the others.

And there was another factor to consider: Vanessa and Tristan. What if this Seosten knew where their parents were? How… how incredibly selfish would it be for me to kill her just because I was angry, robbing those two of a potential chance to find their parents? How would I feel if I found out that someone who knew where Fossor was keeping my mother showed up and someone killed that person without even trying to get that information out of them?

So no. Attacking was a bad idea. Blinded by rage and indignation as I was, that was obvious. There was a good chance I wouldn’t kill her, and even if I did, I’d be throwing away both my chance to find out who the other Seosten were, as well as Vanessa and Tristan’s chance to find their lost parents. And considering how I felt about my mother… I couldn’t do that. I refused to.

But that left another problem. The Seosten was still coming. She wasn’t moving very fast, considering my fox could still see her from where it was sitting. Obviously, she was giving me plenty of time to get back to the school. But she was coming. And if she found me standing there, if she saw me like this… I had to assume that she’d realize what I knew. And then it wouldn’t matter if I wanted to start the fight with her. There would be one anyway.  

I had to go. I had to get out of sight. My first instinct at that point was to hide and try to follow her, try to see what person she’d possessed, which of my friends she had enslaved for this. Either me or my fox, one of us should follow after her to see what she did and where she went.

Except no. If I tried to follow her, she’d sense me. I had no doubt of that. And if I sent my fox after her, she’d probably sense the attention then too. Or, if she had even the briefest glimpse of the thing, she’d know exactly whose fox it was, and what had happened. She’d know.  

Worse, once she went onto the school grounds, the fox might just set off the Stranger alarms, which would force me to explain… well, a lot more than I wanted to right then. And the alert would obviously draw her attention. Which, again, would show her exactly what had happened.

No, I couldn’t follow her. I couldn’t do anything to let the Seosten know that I knew about her. The time would come. I’d get my chance. But throwing away the only advantage I had, the fact that she didn’t know that I knew about her, would be wrong. As understandable and therapeutic as it might have been to try doing something right then, it would be the wrong move. I needed to lay low and find a way to identify who she had possessed. Then I could lay a real trap for her.

But first, I had to get out of there before she got close enough to see that I had stopped for so long. Partly so that she wouldn’t realize that I had overheard, and partly because, despite every thought I’d had about what a bad idea it would be, I couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t attack her if she got close enough for me to do so. My logic told me one thing, but I knew that my emotions might just take over if they had a chance. So I had to get the hell out of there.

Turning on my heel, I ran not toward the school, but into the water. Splashing through the cold waves, I dove in as soon as it was deep enough before starting to swim out. I wanted to be far enough out of the way to avoid being noticed.

At the same time, I made the fox watch the Seosten gradually make her way up the beach. Cautiously, I got it to follow along through the jungle, all while trying to weave around a bit so that if she did have some way of sensing what was around her, the Seosten wouldn’t realize that the figure in the jungle was following her.  

It wasn’t exactly easy, working my fox through the jungle like that while simultaneously swimming in the ocean with my clothes on. I kept flipping my attention back and forth, like trying to watch two television shows at once. Fortunately, however, I didn’t have to actually swim by myself for very long. I’d barely made it the length of a couple swimming pools from the beach before a familiar presence rose up from the depths to bump against my legs.

Quint, the ten-foot long Mako shark, rose right up to the surface before giving me what was obviously a curious look. Immediately, I reached out and grabbed onto the shark’s side, pulling myself over onto it. “Hey buddy,” I whispered despite how far out we were. “Where’s your brother, huh? Are the others okay?”

Quint swam in lazy, slow circles while the rest of his shiver gradually arrived. I let them crowd around, carefully patting each of them in turn while mostly focusing my attention on my summoned fox. Because while I had been getting myself out into the ocean with my many-toothed friends, the Seosten had kept going right toward the school grounds. I had to figure that my thought about her having a way of sensing what was around her was true, because she only slowed down when she was near the spot where a few students were playing some kind of game in the sand. Staying just out of their sight, the Seosten stood still for a moment. Then, she vanished from sight. She was gone, invisible and undetectable.

And that was that. She was gone now. Obviously, she had a way of getting onto the school grounds without being detected. Which made sense. If the Seosten themselves had been so involved with the creation of Heretic society, they would have left ways for themselves to get around the security spells undetected, backdoors into the places we thought were safe.

Would I regret letting her disappear? Would I regret not taking the opportunity I had to jump the Seosten while I’d known exactly where she was? Maybe. I couldn’t completely dismiss the possibility. Maybe I’d never get that chance again. But given every thought I’d had about why doing so would have been a bad idea, I had to go with my gut. I had to trust myself. There would be another chance, a better one. Now that I knew that she existed, that she had taken over one of the people I was supposed to be able to trust, I could work with that. We could work with it.

With that in mind, I reached into the pocket of my soaked pants while sitting on Quint’s back. Carefully, I dug out the secure phone. Thanks to Crossroads ingenuity, the phone wasn’t hurt at all by being wet. Shaking it off a little, I quickly punched in the phone number that had been magically seared into my memory. Because honestly, if this didn’t count as a big enough emergency to warrant using it, then nothing ever would. I needed help.

It rang three times before the familiar, steady voice spoke up. Even through the phone, I could hear the power and authority behind it. “Felicity, are you in immediate danger?” Despite the calm reassurance behind his voice, I could also hear the promise of imminent violence if I had been hurt. He was ready to charge straight in if I told him that I needed help.

And honestly, knowing that a man like Gabriel Prosser had my back like that helped calm me down a little bit.

“No.” Shaking my head, I answered quickly. “I mean, I’m not in immediate danger. It’s okay. I’m okay–sort of. But something happened.

“Something you should probably know about…”

******

An hour later, I was back out in the water with the sharks. This time, however, I wasn’t alone.

“Oh my God.” Shiori’s voice was quiet, hoarse and horrified. She looked about as sick as I still felt, sitting there on Sherman’s back as the bull shark lazily swam in circles. “You mean it could be–it could be anyone. Sh-she could be possessing… she could be po-possessing–” Her voice choked off then as the girl flinched, unable to finish what she had been saying.

“Porter,” Avalon finished. My roommate sat on Brody, her face knitted into a frown. “It could be Porter. Or it could be any of the others. Scout, Mason, Gerardo, either of the Moons, Fellows…” She looked to me. “All we know is that it’s someone that Chambers thinks she can trust.”

“Which doesn’t narrow it down to students,” I pointed out. “Sure, we can rule out Gaia because… uh, if she was taken over, we’d all know it. But other than that… it could be Professor Dare, Nevada, any of them. Even Klassin Roe. Who better to make me think I could trust him than the school therapist? It could even be Hisao. Maybe they got him after he showed up. We just–we don’t know. We don’t know… almost anything. Any of them could have been… taken.”

“We have to help them,” Shiori declared, looking up from the back of the shark. Her voice was still shaky and disgusted, but also resolved. “Whoever it is, whoever she enslaved, we have to free them. We have to, Flick. We have to find out who it is and… and get her the hell out.”

I nodded slowly at that, swallowing hard. “Yeah,” I murmured. “Don’t worry, Shiori. Whoever it is, we’ll save them. We’ll get that Seosten bitch out of them. We just have to do it the right way.”

There was quiet for a few seconds before Avalon spoke. “You said you talked to Prosser.” Even as she said his name, I could hear the undercurrent of admiration and awe for the man in her voice. It was like listening to any other person mention their personal hero. “What did he say?”

“Yeah,” Shiori quickly chimed in. “He’s this big, super-powerful Heretic, right? Please tell us  he has a way to figure out who the Seosten’s possessing and get her the hell out of them. Please.”

Flinching a little inwardly, I shook my head. “Yes and no. Well, actually no and yes, in that order. Sort of.” Frowning at how that was coming out, I waved a hand before the others could say anything. “They have one spell, a rune that can drive a Seosten out of their host and stop them from possessing anyone else for a short time.”

Shiori brightened at that. “Perfect. That’s perfect, right? It sounds like just what we need.”

“Like I said,” I replied, “yes and no. See, the spell has to be applied directly to the host. And it… um, it’s not subtle at all. It hurts the host the entire time it’s being applied and the Seosten will know exactly what it’s for. She’ll know what we’re trying to do from the moment we start it.”

Wincing, Avalon murmured, “So there’s no way to apply it while they’re sleeping. Wonderful.”

There was no easy way to put this, so I continued. “It gets better. Apparently any Seosten would know as soon as we start using that spell. Even if we’re not using it on the right person, they’ll sense the spell being used. It’s like a big, bright beacon going off.”

Shiori actually cursed at that. “You mean even if we do find the right person and use the spell on them, the other Seosten will know what’s happening if it happens anywhere on the island?”

“That pretty much sums it up,” I confirmed with a little nod. “Oh, and because that wasn’t bad enough, apparently Seosten that are on the same mission are usually connected. Which means they can also tell when one of their own has been… uh, exorcised like that.” 

Both of the other girls stared at me, Avalon grimacing. “Which means we can’t just take every person one by one and use the spell until we find the right one, even if we go away from the island to do it. Because as soon as we do find the right one, her partners will know what happened.”

“Yup,” I replied. “So we can’t identify them before using the spell, they’ll know what we’re doing as soon as we start doing it, and even if they’re not the one we’re using it on. And even if we get the right one, the other Seosten, who could be anybody, will know. And then who the hell knows what they’ll do.” 

Avalon nodded slowly, frowning as she obviously thought for a moment before speaking up. “So we have to find out who this Seosten is possessing, then use her to find the others. Then use the spell on all of them at once before they hurt anyone else.”

“That’s the best plan I thought of too,” I confirmed while shrugging. “Prosser said he’d teach us how to use the spell, and–”

“Teach us?” Avalon interrupted. Her eyes were… okay, wow, her eyes were wide as she she stared at me. “Us. As in meet us. As in meet him. He wants us to meet him. And talk. And–”

“Wow,” Shiori snickered despite herself, leaning closer to me. “She’s really into this Prosser guy. Are you sure she likes gi–”

That was as far as she got before Avalon’s hand caught her arm and yanked the other girl off the shark. Shiori fell into the ocean with a yelp that was punctuated by a heavy splash.

Simpson quickly swam up from below to pick her out of the water, and the Asian girl stuck her tongue out at Avalon. “We both saw you blush.”

Coughing, I gestured. “I think the point is that we know for sure it’s the Seosten that are after Avalon now. I mean, why else would they be trying to stop us from talking to Fahsteth? Plus, that definitely explains how someone was able to kill Professor Pericles without setting off the security alert. The Seosten were possessing someone.”

Avalon nodded. “Which means they’re the ones who want to get into Bosch’s vault.”

Shaking her head, Shiori pushed her hands back through her soaked hair (as I told myself not to be distracted by the sight) to clear it away from her eyes. “But why? What’s in there that’s so important?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted quietly. “But whatever it is, it’s important enough for them to go this far trying to get to it. So it’s probably something that can fuck their whole race over. Maybe even expose the truth about how they’ve manipulated the Heretics for so long.

“And honestly, that sounds just perfect to me.”

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The Third Degree 21-01

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“I’m sorry, what the fuck do you mean, Ruthers wants to start a war?”

My voice, as the words blurted their way out of me, was much higher-pitched than I was used to. It sounded like Alvin or one of the other Chipmunks was the one demanding answers.

Wait, why didn’t my brain conjure up one of the Chipettes? What the hell, brain?

Despite the fact that we were out on the beach, and using one of the privacy coins, Koren still shushed me, putting both index fingers to her mouth and making a hissing noise before looking around. Lowering her voice, she whispered, “He doesn’t actually want to start a war. Not really, he just wants it to look like he does.”

It had been about a week since what had happened with Hyde and his partner. In the aftermath, I’d found out that Dare and Hisao had killed the other man right after he ambushed Russell and Harper. The other students had been injured, but they recovered soon enough.

We don’t know what those black stones were that both Aswang had used to trigger their own change even though it had still been daytime. Nor did anyone have the slightest idea how they’d learned Heretic spells, or who would teach them. Well, Sands had floated Eden’s Garden as a possibility, but after a prolonged glare from Avalon, admitted that she didn’t actually know. The point was, we really had no idea who their mysterious ‘backer’ was or what was going on there.

Personally, I was just kind of glad that we’d run into a problem that didn’t actually have anything to do with either me or anyone on my team. It was kind of refreshing, despite the confusion. Partly because it meant that I didn’t have to feel that bad about letting the regular Heretics handle it. I had enough problems to deal with as it was. Passing that off to the adults was just fine with me.

And now here I was, standing on the beach, staring at Koren like she was a crazy person. Was this how people felt when I said stuff they thought was insane?

“Okay,” I started after breathing out. “Maybe you should start from the beginning. What happened?”

She shrugged then, voice still barely a whisper. Clearly, Wyatt had taken her under his wing as far as paranoia went. Which, to be fair, probably wasn’t a bad idea. Better to be safe than sorry. “Okay, so you remember how we sort-of put that magic listening bug on Ruthers’ buttmonkey?”

“Peterson Neal,” I replied while nodding. “I remember. So you heard something about a war with Eden’s Garden. Which, for the record, sounds like the stupidest thing in the world, considering they  just allowed Gaia to hire Hisao. How the hell is that gonna go over?”

Snorting, Koren nodded. “No kidding.” Taking a breath then, she explained. “Neal and Ruthers were talking. First it was about this vote thing that the Committee was going through about demanding that Eden’s Garden hand over my mom. Apparently they’re going to make up some excuse for the other Crossroads Heretics about how the Fomorian might’ve infected her with something that Eden’s Garden can’t or won’t catch, and that’s why they need to get her back. You know, if the whole thing actually went that far.”

“Because they’re sure as hell not going to tell them the real reasons they want her,” I murmured under my breath before looking back to the other girl. “But you don’t think it’ll actually go that far.”

“I know it won’t,” she confirmed. “Like I said, he was talking to Peterson. Apparently he trusts that guy a lot. Don’t ask me why, he’s obviously a buttkissing douche. Anyway, Neal wanted to know what was gonna happen if they started this whole war with Eden’s Garden. Because, you know, the whole point of erasing Joselyn was to stop the Heretics from being divided. Kind of ruins the whole point if they turn around and start fighting Garden over this to divide everyone again.”  

My head shook at that. “I can’t believe I actually agree with Peterson Neal. That’s a stupid idea.”

Koren nodded. “Yeah, so did Ruthers. He told him that he didn’t want the war either. Not really. He just wants Eden’s Garden to think that he does. He wants them to think that he’s crazy enough to push for this war, so that they give up and hand over my mom. That’s all he wants. He wants Mom so he’s willing to push enough to make the leaders over there believe that he’ll go that far.”

 “Of course he wants her,” I muttered flatly. “He’s afraid all his bullshit secrets about how far he went to stop Mom to begin with are about to come out. You think people’ll react well to that shit?”

“Some of them would,” the other girl retorted with a scowl before sighing. “But yeah, he’s definitely worried. About that, and about another Fomorian getting their hands on her.”

Before I could say anything else to that, someone’s approach caught my eye. Stiffening at first, I glanced that way before relaxing. Rubbing the coin in my pocket, I dismissed the spell while giving Koren a nod before speaking. “Hey, Columbus.”

“Girls,” he greeted us with an easy smile. “What’s up? You look so serious. Tell me everything’s okay. Please, I don’t think I could take more problems right now. Not with Creed deciding now is the best time ever to drop a metric crap-ton of trig homework.” He paused then, head tilting. “Actually, is it considered homework when we never actually go home? Dormwork?”

“It’s…” I started, pausing a little before sighing. “I’ll tell you about it later. It’s not an emergency.” With a brief wink, I added, “Besides, shouldn’t you be good at trigonometry? It is part of Cyclops’s whole thing, after all. Angles and all that.”

Blinking at me once before giving a light chuckle, the boy nodded. “Well sure, when you put it that way.”

“Just think of it as character research,” I teased before sighing in spite of myself. “Besides, I wish a lot of homework was our biggest problem right now.”  

“Hey.” Reaching out, Columbus put a hand on my arm gently. “I know you guys are worried about the whole Fossor thing. We’ll find a way to get your mom out of there, alive, safe, and everything else.” His eyes flicked toward Koren briefly. “Your grandmother, I guess. God, that sounds weird.”

Coughing, the other girl nodded. “Tell me about it.” Glancing to me, she added, “I’m gonna go.  He’s right, Professor Creed’s way too work-happy right now to blow it off. Some of us can’t stay up all night doing work. It’s like he thinks everyone’s got your bullshit power.”

“Speaking of bullshit power,” Columbus started pointedly while looking at me as Koren started back up the beach to the school, “what happened with that thing with Gaia? Did she actually…”

I nodded. “We tested it. She was right, I umm, I don’t set off the warning sense that Alters usually have when they see Heretics. At least, until I use one of my active powers. Then it goes off for them. But as long as I’m not really doing anything, they just see me as a normal human.”

He whistled low. “So they’re completely blind to you during the daytime, like the Aswang.”

My head shook then. “Not just during the day. Period. As long as I don’t use any kind of power or magic or anything, nothing active that they can notice, they see me as human. Oh,” I added, “and they don’t notice if I change my face. I mean, if I’ve changed my face before they see me, they don’t notice it then either. It only goes off for them if they actually see me change it. Like, if they see me use any kind of power, it breaks the effect and they see me as a Heretic.”

He was staring at me, eyebrows raised. “All the time? So as long as they don’t actually see you use any power, you could change your face to look like someone else and walk right up to them, and they wouldn’t even know you were a Heretic until it was too late.” Squinting then, he mused, “Sounds to me like the Heretics would be searching these Aswang out a lot more if they give that kind of advantage.” Belatedly, the boy added, “I mean, obviously they shouldn’t just kill them for that. But you know, they would because… duh. So why don’t they?”     

“Gaia says Aswangs are rare,” I answered slowly. “And this power is even more rare. Dare killed the other one, and she didn’t get it. I talked to both of them and they said they’ve never seen anyone inherit this power. It’s normally shapeshifting, or growing extra arms, or manifesting that exoskeleton armor, or anything like that. I think Dare said one person even got the ability to control bugs from an Aswang. Which is kinda weird, but whatever. Anyway, the point is, they haven’t seen this before. That’s why it took so long to figure it out. They kept trying to prompt me into using one of those other powers. But once nothing happened and I told them how I got that big… uhh, you know…” Coughing with a little blush, I gestured. “… that big pleasure rush, Gaia said she thought it might be something a lot more rare. So… she tested it. And here we are.”

Columbus was shaking his head at me. “So unfair. You’re like, a super-spy assassin or something. Strangers not noticing that you’re a Heretic until you use a power? That’s gotta be useful.”

Shrugging, I replied, “Might make it easier to at least get close enough to talk to them without making a big scene. Cuz, for some silly reason, they tend to freak out when they see Heretics.”   

The boy snorted a bit derisively at that. “Yeah, can’t imagine why they’d react that way.”  

“It’s a mystery,” I agreed, shaking my head. “But it could cause issues too. Especially if they start to think that I’m hiding what I am or–I dunno. Point is, I don’t set off their Heretic-sense anymore.”

“Maybe you can use that against Fossor,” he pointed out thoughtfully. “If he doesn’t see you coming, it might help you get close enough to get to your mom. You know, if you can find out where she is. And  get passed all his other security. And…” Pausing then, he made a face. “You know, I guess it really doesn’t help all that much. At least as far as that goes.”

“I’ll find a way to make it useful,” I promised him. “I’ll find a way to make all of it useful. Because I’m not gonna give up on Mom. I’m gonna get her away from that psychopath.”

His hand found my back, resting there lightly. “You know you don’t have to do it by yourself, right?”

Nodding slowly, I turned to look out at the ocean in the distance. “I know. I couldn’t anyway. I’m gonna need all you guys.”

“Well,” Columbus replied easily while leaving his hand on my back. “Good. Because you’ve got us.

“And I, for one, am not going anywhere.”

******

“You know the others would say this is incredibly stupid, right?” Shiori asked the next evening.

Glancing to her on my left side, then to Avalon on my right, I nodded. “Why do you think I didn’t tell them about it yet? They’d want to come, and this is already gonna be a hard enough sell as it is. It’s enough that Gaia, Dare, and Wyatt know about it. If anything goes down, they’ll be right here.”

Yeah, we weren’t at the school. Not at the moment. Instead, the three of us were standing in the middle of a park somewhere in Nebraska. It was cold, there was snow on the ground, and I could see our breath when we spoke. Overall, definitely not the island.

“You didn’t tell Columbus, did you?” Avalon asked the other girl, squinting at her a little bit.

Shiori shook her adorably beanie-covered head at that. “Of course not. You think he’d let me come out here without him if I’d said what we were up to? I told him we were… um.” She glanced to me before blushing a little. “I told him we were going on a date. Me and Flick, I mean.”

That made me feel guilty. She and I still hadn’t been on an actual date. Actually, I hadn’t been on a date with either of them. Not a real one, with eating and privacy and… yeah.

“We need to work on that,” I admitted. “You know, maybe after we deal with this whole issue.”

“Yeah,” Shiori managed a weak little smile. “If this works out and doesn’t blow up in our faces, we could probably use a reward.”

Sounding curious, Avalon asked, “What did he say when you told him?”

Shiori blinked at that, then realized, “Oh, the-umm, Flick thing. Uh, he basically said that it was about time we actually did something about it instead of beating around the bush. And there was some other stuff. You know, brother stuff.”

Taking a second to glance toward the nearby security camera on the traffic light of the nearby road where I knew Gaia was watching from, I nodded slowly. “Yeah, he told me that if I made you as sad as you were back when school started, he’d find a way to give me even more problems than I already have. Which, kudos to him for the effort that would take.”

I started to say something to that, but the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow distracted me. Looking that way, we all watched as three figures approached. Two were about normal-sized, while the third… well, the third was pretty much a small, mobile mountain.

Lifting a hand, I waved at the third figure, smiling despite myself. “Hey, Buddy!”

Sure enough, the massive troll returned my smile and wave. “It is the Flicking person.” He frowned then. “Flicking person is not Heretic?” 

“Just Flick,” I corrected while shaking my head. “And it’s a long story. I’m still a Heretic though, I promise. How’re you doing?”

“Buddy is doing good,” he replied, settling his gigantic form nearby. His eyes scanned all three of us up and down before settling on Avalon. “But Buddy System is not knowing that one.”

I gestured to the other girl. “It’s okay, this is Avalon. She’s good.”

From the shadows, one of the other figures spoke up. “I’ll say she’s good.” Calvin stepped into view, giving Avalon an appraising look up and down that took about twice as long as most people who stared at the other girl managed before they realized they should show some decorum. “What school did you say you go to again?”

“One for Heretics,” I snapped at him. “You know, the same people that’d kill you in about three seconds flat if you showed up there?”

The red-haired man gave me a shrug. “Might be worth it, if there’s chicks like that one around.”

Before I could say anything to that, the final figure spoke up. “You keep that up and they’re gonna fight over which of them gets to skewer your stupid ass.”

Focusing on the rest of us then, Seth added casually, “And speaking of people who would take him apart given half a chance, you guys seen my little sister lately?” To Shiori, he amended, “Other little sister, I mean.”

Before Shiori could retort that she wasn’t his sister and neither was Asenath, I shook my head. “Not since Christmas break ended. It’s kind of been crazy. But I’ve talked to her and everything’s fine. Or as fine as it really gets.” Actually, I’d talked to her just to set this whole thing up, but I supposed she hadn’t actually called Seth about it.

He gave me a nod that seemed serious, at least for him. “Good. I heard Jiao was back in the neighborhood, so to speak.” His eyes drifted to Shiori before he added, “Tell her I said, hey.” 

Focusing on me again, he raised an eyebrow. “Buddy’s right, you know. I’m not getting the Heretic heebee-jeebies from you. From those two, yeah, but not from you.”

“It’s a power thing,” I informed him. “Like I said, long story. If I don’t use my power, you won’t see me as a Heretic.”

His eyes narrowed a little at that. “That right? Well, ain’t that a bitch if that kind of power ends up with someone who doesn’t have your temperament?”

“It’s rare, don’t worry,” I replied flatly.

Stretching his arms up over his head lazily, the vampire continued. “Fair enough. Now, far be it from me to be the one to focus on work. But you did ask for this meeting for a reason, right?”

Slowly, I breathed out. This was it, this was my next big plan for how to get to the bottom of what was going on with Avalon. If they couldn’t help, I wasn’t sure where to go next.

“First,” I started before holding out an envelope. “For meeting with us.”

Seth took the envelope before tossing it to Calvin. The red-haired man looked in it, counting out the cash inside briefly. “Twenty grand, just like she said.”

The money was from Gaia. I didn’t exactly feel good about taking cash from her, but apparently she had more than she could use in a dozen lifetimes. Even her lifetimes. And this was about Avalon.

“There’s twice that waiting for you if you do this for us,” I promised.

“Do what, exactly?” From the look he had, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Seth already knew the answer even before he asked. Or maybe he just liked holding that expression so that people would always think that he knew more than he really did.

Glancing to the other two briefly, then up to the traffic camera, I finally focused on Seth and Calvin. “We need you to hire someone and then tell us where we can find him. We’d do it, but I’m pretty sure you can get in touch with him easier than we can.”

“You have a certain someone in mind, then?” Seth lazily drawled.

I nodded. “Yeah. The mercenary, Fahsteth. I want you to hire Fahsteth.

“There’s a few things we want to talk to him about.”  

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