Shiori Porter

Suspects 24-07

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As the two crazed werewolves came for us, Roxa and I did the best thing we could in the moment: we went straight to meet them. With barely a glance exchanged between us, we both moved. Roxa took three steps forward before dropping a bit, bending so that my subsequent hop let me put a foot on her back to push off of into a leap. Spinning in the air, I came down between the two, behind Lemuel and facing his back but ahead of Pace with my back to her.

Bending backwards slightly, I brought my staff up in both hands, held horizontally behind my head at the last second before one of the knives that Pace had produced smacked off of it with a loud clang, narrowly stopping her from cutting straight into my neck. At the same time, I lashed out to kick Lemuel in the back in order to shove him off-balance and toward Roxa.

Unfortunately, the kick missed as the big wolf smoothly pivoted to avoid it. Roxa, who had produced a silver knife of her own, just missed cutting into the big black man’s arm. Just as quickly, he caught her wrist and I heard a snapping sound from the bone there as she yelped.

I couldn’t focus on that though. Roxa’s werewolf and Peridle healing would take care of it. Spinning toward Pace, I snapped the staff around my back and to the front to just in time to catch the knife in her left hand against the bladed end of my own weapon. Her foot lashed out at me, but I snapped my own leg up to catch it, both of our shins rebounding off each other.

Pace dropped into a low, spinning leg-sweep at the same time that I leapt and spun in a kick of my own. My leg passed over her head, while hers passed directly beneath me. At the same time, I caught the end of my staff and gave a hard swing back and down with my arm at full extension in order to reach. The blow caught Lemuel against the shoulder. It barely did any damage to the big guy, though it did slow him for half a step, giving Roxa a chance to launch herself up and forward. Her right foot hit the man in the stomach, her left foot hit his chest, and then she did a backwards flip that smacked her left foot against his chin before landing on Gidget’s back as the cyberform cougar leapt into her hoverboard form right below Roxa.

Meanwhile, as I came back down, I used the recoil from my staff bouncing off of Lemuel’s shoulder to spin the weapon back around and down into a vertical blow at the spot where Pace had dropped in her attempt to sweep my legs. It was too late, the girl was already gone. Her enhanced speed brought her back to her feet and out of the way of the staff, lashing out with a swipe from the knife in her right hand that my werewolf-enhanced reflexes barely let me jerk away from in time to avoid the worst of the damage. The blade still cut across my cheek, stinging a bit. But at least it wasn’t my throat.

Not that I had time to be glad about that fact, since Pace followed up her first swipe with half a dozen more, all of them coming so fast that I didn’t have time to block or dodge them all. I took three more cuts across my arms and shoulder while frantically spinning my staff up to take the worst of the damage. Distantly, I felt the pain, but it barely mattered. There was nothing debilitating about the damage she’d done, nothing to make me stop fighting. Not yet, anyway.

To give myself a little room, I snapped the staff up and triggered a blast of kinetic force that knocked Pace up and back about ten feet. Using the same momentum from the blast, I spun around, pivoting on one foot while swinging at Lemuel’s head with the bladed end of the staff.

His hand snapped backward, catching the staff just under the blade before yanking me off my feet. As he hauled me up, I hit the button that sent sand shooting out of the staff, directing it in a cloud to his eyes and mouth before triggering the last of the charge in my weapon. The force shot out the bottom of the staff, propelling it (with me attached) up and out of the man’s grip, flying into the air. He gave a violent snarl, lashing out at me on the way, but with the sand blinding him, he missed.

Flipping over in the air, I aimed the staff down, giving a sharp whistle toward Roxa, who was still on her board. With her attention, I shot the grapple out of my staff, launching it at Lemuel.

The big, dark-skinned half-wolf easily jerked aside, avoiding the grapple. But that was okay, I’d been expecting him to. And so had Roxa. Even as the grapple had shot downward, she already had Gidget flying forward. At the last second, she leapt off the hoverboard, catching the line from my grapple to spin herself around it, planting both feet into Lemuel’s side with all that force.

The big guy went down on his side, the blow knocking him over.

Unfortunately,  we couldn’t follow up the moment of vulnerability, because Pace had recovered by that point. She was a sudden blur, appearing out of nowhere to kick Roxa in the side, a blow that knocked the blonde girl onto her back. As Roxa hit the ground hard, Pace brought both hands up. A literal ball of flame appeared between them, which she launched at the briefly prone girl while cackling wildly.

Luckily, I had already been reacting. As I fell toward the ground, my finger found the button to make the energy-cord of the grapple retract. I was yanked forward and down, arriving just as Pace let loose with that fireball. Seeing the orb of fire coming as I landed between both other girls, I focused on the energy-absorption power that I had gained from killing Doxer. The spinning ball of heat and flame crashed into me… and disappeared. I felt warm, but not burned. And there was that familiar tingle as my body was charged up with the energy, mostly heat but also a little kinetic, that I had absorbed. For the moment, however, I held it in. Just like during training, it felt a bit like needing to use the restroom. From experience, I knew that feeling would rapidly worsen. I could only hold the energy that I had absorbed for a very brief time.

“Naughty Present!” Pace snapped out with a crazed giggle. “Using Doxer’s power, how rude.”

The good news then was that Roxa was back up. The bad news was that so was Lemuel. The big werewolf lunged at me with a roar, even as Pace’s arm lashed out, covered in that bone armor of hers. A short, sharp, eight-inch shard of the bone was already shooting toward me.

When I had faced Pace back in Wonderland, the bone-dart had been too fast for me to even see coming. But that wasn’t true anymore, not with the super-reflexes that I had absorbed from the wolves in that very same encounter. As the sharpened bone flew at my stomach, I snapped my staff up and around with my left hand to slap it out of the way. At the same time, my right hand pointed, releasing the fire that I had absorbed in a spray of flame that took the incoming Lemuel in the face. His reflexes saved him from charging straight into it, letting him recoil while barely getting singed. But it did at least stall his attack, forcing the evil pack leader onto the defensive.

It also meant that he didn’t see Gidget bounding forward until the mechanical cougar had already latched onto his arm. She yanked him down with a snarl (from both her and the wolf-man himself), just before Roxa jumped on his back. The blonde girl drove that silver knife of hers at his throat, but Lemuel snapped his head back, driving it into Roxa’s face hard enough to knock her off of him before her knife could do more than lightly scrape his shoulder.

Pace had already followed up her first thrown bone-dart by launching several more before rearing back to spit a glob of metal-eating acid right at me. Quickly, I snapped my staff around, slapping the incoming bone-darts out of the way while simultaneously releasing another burst of sand. This one was much larger than the other bit I had summoned before, as I sent most of what I had out into a large ball that collided with the acid. The caustic liquid ate through the sand almost immediately, but it was still able to block it enough that I could side-step the last of the stuff.

It did not, however, save me from Lemuel. The big werewolf had freed himself from Roxa, lunging forward to catch hold of my shoulders. Before I knew what was happening, he hauled me off my feet and slammed me into the ground hard enough to knock the breath out of me. His foot came down toward my face, and I barely had the presence of mind to jerk my head out of the way an instant before that foot slammed into the dirt, putting a foot-deep hole in the ground where I had been a half-second earlier.

Before he could lift the foot to try again, I snapped my fingers twice before opening my hand to catch the silver knife as it popped out of the watch on my wrist. Driving the blade down into the man’s foot, I couldn’t help the snarl of satisfaction at the sound of his cry of both pain and fury.

As he was reacting to that, Gidget dropped out of the sky, shifting from hoverboard to cougar just in time to land hard enough on the wolf-man’s shoulders and back to knock him into a hunched position. The cyberform leapt off him immediately, colliding with the incoming Pace while snarling. The two rolled away, tumbling end over end.

With a grimace, I lashed out at the man’s face as he was doubled over. He jerked backward, easily avoiding the blow… and put himself in the perfect position for Roxa as the other girl leapt to put her fist right in his face with enough force to snap his head to the side.

Doing a quick kip-up to bring myself back to my feet, I spun, the bladed-end of my staff lashing out at the other side of the man’s face.

Again, he caught it, snarling angrily. Before he could do anything though, Roxa was there. She drove a quick kick into his side, drawing a grunt from the man even as I triggered enough of a burst from my staff to yank it from his grasp. Using that momentum, I spun around, driving the shaft of the weapon against his stomach. It was like hitting a brick wall with my own normal human strength. The guy was tough.

And he was fast too. His fist collided with the side of my head, knocking me stumbling as white-pain flashed through me briefly. At the same time, the man back-handed Roxa across the face. As she stumbled a step, his foot kicked up. I saw the silver blade that I had driven into his foot fly up before he caught it, driving the blade backward into the girl’s chest. Making a noise of triumph, he stabbed twice more into the same spot, into her heart before kicking her away from him.

He faced me then, tossing the bloody knife away before snarling, his voice amused. “One down,” he drawled slowly, as if he had all the time in the world to play with his food, “two to–”

A blade appeared… in the man’s throat, driven through it from the back. As blood spurted forth freely, he made a strangled noise of disbelief, choking and gurgling while half turning, already stumbling a little.

Roxa stood there, still bleeding, but standing despite being stabbed in the heart with a silver blade. Her own knife was one in the big man’s throat, where she had leapt to shove it. Meanwhile, her other hand held the one that had stabbed her before he threw it away.

“Redundant organs,” she snarled at the bewildered and drastically injured man. “Extra heart. Jekern power, bitch.”

Her own dagger had nearly killed the man. And with mine, she finished the job, driving the blade up through his throat and into his brain as he choked on his own blood.

Pace, who had extricated herself from Gidget long enough to give the cyberform a kick that sent it tumbling away, spun back around in time to see her pack leader collapse to the ground. As he dropped, Roxa’s glowing bronze aura appeared, and the injured girl dropped as well, giving a moan of pleasure.

The big wolf was down. But we still had the other one to deal with. And from the look of things, Roxa wasn’t going to be able to help.

So I’d do it myself. Taking advantage of Pace’s extremely brief stunned silence, I released the charge in my staff while letting go of the weapon itself. It flew forward, slamming into the crazed (probably possessed) girl’s stomach, the force of the blow doubling her over for a second. Even as the staff started to fall away from her then, I was there, catching the other end of it. Spinning while shifting my grip on the weapon, I did a full three-sixty to put myself behind her. In the same motion, my staff hooked against the girl’s throat, hauling her up and backward while I continued my pivot. She landed hard on her back against the ground even as my staff ended up pointed down at her. An instant later, before she could recover, the silver-coated grapple shot from the end of it, tearing through the wolf-girl’s leg to pin her to the ground as she gave a howl of pain.

I was on her then, diving on top of the girl even as she gave another scream, this one mostly in rage. We fumbled a bit, she produced a wave of fire that I absorbed before she covered herself in bone-armor and launched a dozen darts. About half of them hit me, three in the arms (two in the left and one in the right), one in the leg, and two in the right side of my chest, narrowly missing anything important. Still, it hurt like a bitch. But I kept at it. My hand snapped up and closed around the choker that was on the girl’s neck before I triggered my staff. It had only charged a little bit, but it was enough to launch me up and backward away from her, while the clasp holding the choker in place snapped.

It was a close thing, but I kept hold of my prize. The choker. The thing we needed. Coming down from being launched by my staff, I hit the ground in a roll, ending on my stomach briefly, clutching the precious item against my chest.

For a second, I lay there, breathing out before rolling over. I came to my feet, choker in hand and smile on my face. “Sorry,” I announced to Pace, who was still pinned by the grapple through her leg (the energy-line attached to it had extended as I was launched away from her). “Finders-keepers?” I held the choker while stepping that way, dangling it practically in her face.

Her snarl turned to a smile. “Well,” she half-purred while staring at me intently, “you know what they say. If I can’t have it…” Abruptly, the girl spat a glob of that incredibly potent acid. My hand jerked away, but it was too late. The acid caught the choker, and I had to let it go. Stumbling back as my eyes widened, I stared at the acid-coated choker on the ground as a cry of disbelief and denial burst from my lips. The green liquid had already melted through half of it by the time it landed. A moment later, and most of it was gone. The choker had been destroyed.

Pace took advantage of my horrified distraction, reaching down to yank the grapple out of her leg before heaving herself up. She landed on her good foot, cackling like someone had just told her the most hilarious joke in the world. “I guess, I guess–” she managed between fits of laughter, “you don’t get your prize after all, huh? Uhhh oh, too bad, so sad for the little blonde wolfy-cub. Too bad for everything, all your little things. So sad. Maybe you’ll feel bad for killing my friend, huh? Maybe feel bad for Doxer.” She cackled madly once more, though I saw a brief glimpse of genuine anger and… maybe even sadness there when she mentioned her old teammate.  

Running footsteps approached, and our eyes snapped that way. Roxa had recovered from both her injury (at least enough to move, even if her regeneration wouldn’t work that well against the silver), and from the brief moment of pleasure from killing Lemuel. And she had been joined by the others. Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan were all on their way as well, the five converging.

“Oooh,” Pace all-but purred. “Friends. They can make you feel better for failing, Present. We’ll finish later.” She was still favoring her leg, the silver in the grapple stopping the werewolf regeneration from healing her so easily. Still, her amusement was obvious as she waved at me, and I saw the piece of bark from the Eden’s Garden tree in her hand. “Toodles!”

An instant later, just as the others arrived, she slammed the wood down and disappeared.

I stood there, staring at the spot where she had been before my gaze dropped to the ground where the mangled, melted remains of the choker lay. There was almost nothing left of the thing.

“Flick?” Shiori’s voice was hesitant. “The fight’s mostly over. They’re retreating and scattering.”

Quietly, my voice cracking just a little, I asked, “What about the kids they took?”

Tristan spoke up then. “One of the wolves spilled. They’re being held at a cabin about a quarter mile away. They’ve already got people on the way. So um…” He paused before asking, “Are you okay?”

For a moment, I didn’t answer. I just stared at the ruined choker. Then I looked up, seeing the others gathered around to stare at me. My flat, stunned expression slowly melted away as I reached into the pocket of my uniform jacket… and I smiled while producing the choker. The real choker, which I had switched with the fake one while I’d laid on the ground. The fake one that Namythiet had built at my request and secretly snuck into my jacket earlier when she dove in there back before the fight had begun, while we had been chatting at the top of the ridge.

If I was right about Pace being possessed, the other Seosten were connected to her. Even if she hadn’t escaped, they’d know the instant that we had the choker, and they never would’ve let us get away with it. They would’ve brought hell itself down on us to get the damn thing back. But now, well, I’d given the girl as big of an opening to let her destroy the fake as I could without being too obvious, and she had taken the bait. Then I’d let her escape, because it was more important that they think they’d won than it was for us to catch Pace, or Lies, or whoever she was, right then. That could wait. The important part was, now they thought the choker that could identify them was destroyed. They thought it was gone forever. They thought they were safe. Good. Let them believe that they’d won the battle.

Because with the choker, we had the means to win the war.

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Suspects 24-06

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“We’ll go in first,” Mateo announced a moment later. “My pack and our friends. We can get a lot closer than any of you can.” He gestured not just at us, but toward the other Alters as well. “Weres know each other. We can get right into the camp. There’s so many people down there, they won’t know that we don’t belong there. We’ll get as close as we can, then start trouble.

“Once we’ve got the attention on us, the rest of the Alters can come in. Try to close over them like a net. They’ll be focused on us, which should give you a chance to hit them from behind.”

His eyes moved back over to us then. “Roxa can stay back with the Heretics. Heretics, the second any of them see you, they’ll know what you are. Stay back until the fight’s in full swing. Wait for your chance. Once everyone’s engaged, pick off targets of opportunity. Try not to let the word spread about Heretics being involved until it’s too late for them to regroup. Wait for the moment, then hit fast and hard as soon as they’re involved. The Heretic-Were is the priority.”

Looking to me then, he paused before asking, “You look a little confused. Is everything alright?”

Quickly, I nodded. “Yeah, of course. I just sort of thought there’d be a more specific plan than just ‘go here and fight at this time.’”

The werewolf smiled then. “Specific plans lead to specific failures. It’s a poor leader who tries to micromanage every aspect of a battle. Everyone here knows how to fight, they know how to react to circumstances. So everyone goes where they need to go, and we’ll get through this. You all understand?”

He waited for nods from those of us who were standing there before gesturing. “Alright, then get back to the rest of your groups and tell them what’s going on. Remember, Weres first, then Alters, then Heretics. It’s like the classic one-two punch, but then you kick ‘em in the balls too.”

“I guess in this scenario, we’re the ball-kickers,” I put in then with a raised eyebrow.

Mateo winked at me. “Seems appropriate, all things considered.” Pursing his lips then, he whistled. “Let’s move!” Briefly, he looked back to us. “Be careful, kids. Seriously. I know you already know it’s not a game, but… watch each other’s backs. You may not be a literal pack, but… act like one. Stay together. Take care of each other. You got it?” Waiting until he was given an assortment of nods, the man started off.

I turned to say something to the others, only to pretty much get a faceful of squealing teenage pixie. Which sounded so much like a euphemism even in my head that I blushed just thinking it.

“Flicker!” the pixie in question blurted while hugging tightly onto my face for a moment. “Did you hear?” She fluttered back, hovering there while yanking the tiny sword from her hip to wave it around a little, a tiny, winged swashbuckler. As she finished speaking, the little pixie dove forward to put herself in the pocket of my jacket of my uniform, popping her head back up after a second to grin. “We’re gonna go kick were-whatever ass!”

Smiling despite myself, I nodded. “Hey, Namythiet. Yup, we really are. Be careful though, okay?”

Her head bobbed up and down as she flew back up out of my jacket pocket. “O’course! I’ve gotta back up my mentor, you know.” Her mouth opened to say something else before she hesitated, blinking at me as her head tilted “Heeeeey,” she drawled, “why doncha look like a—how come you’re not a Heretic?” A gasp escaped her then. “Oh no, did you lose your powers?!”

Coughing, I shook my head. “No, I just–it’s a long story. I’m still a Heretic, I promise.” We’d already explained the situation to Mateo. There had been some discussion about using the fact that I didn’t trigger an Alter’s warning sense to let me get close to the camp. But that had been dismissed as too dangerous, since it would leave me alone and my face was probably well-known to the werewolves that Pace spent enough time with anyway.

Namythiet fluttered back then, giving a salute with her sword before flying off to join Seth. The vampire himself was looking our way. As Namythiet joined him, he gave us a nod, pointing toward Shiori before tapping a finger against his head and saying something that I didn’t pick up.

“Use my head,” Shiori provided. “He wants me to be careful.”

“I’m gonna take that as advice for all of us,” I replied while absently buttoning the pocket of my jacket once more. Then I looked back to the others as the people around us started moving out. “I guess we wait for this whole thing to get started then, huh? Anyone see Pace down there yet?”

“Blue tent to the left of the white pick-up,” a new voice announced. Turning, I saw Duncan approaching along with his sister, Misty. The two of them were the brother and sister natural Heretics (Duncan taking his power from a metal-manipulating Ullus while Misty gained hers from an Ogre) that I’d met back at the Atherby camp, the ones who had grown up in the clan after Mom had surrendered herself.

“The one called Pace,” Duncan clarified as he and Misty stopped by us. “That’s where she is.”

Roxa nodded. “He’s right. She was hanging around Lemuel for awhile, but then it looked like she got bored and went back into the tent. She’s come out a few times since then, mostly just grabbing food or messing with one of the other Weres. She’s back in the tent right now.”

“Hi Duncan, hey Misty.” Briefly, I introduced them to the others. “I guess you’re staying with us?”

“Yup,” the brown-haired girl with blonde strands scattered through it nodded. “We’re sort-of your bodyguards through this fight. Well, us and the big guy.” She nodded over her shoulder as the other natural Heretic I’d met that night, Enguerrand (the old, chainmail-armored Heretic who looked like he had time-traveled straight from the middle ages), approached. The teleporting Abeonas, Berlin, was with him.

“I’m  your lift,” Berlin announced as the two of them got close enough. “Soon as you’re ready, I’ll jump you right over there. Just say the word.”

Duncan added, “We’re also supposed to tell you that your father says if you get yourself hurt, he’s going to ground you for a month.”

Enguerrand, meanwhile, simply greeted us politely, giving me a slight smile before taking up a place almost directly behind me. At the moment, he was all business. And his business, apparently, was watching our backs, literally. Then… well, then we watched the field below and waited.

Mateo’s pack (aside from Roxa) and the other werewolves that they’d recruited were already making their way across the field. There were other weres from Lemuel’s gathered army meandering in and out, so it didn’t look all that out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, behind us, the Wonderland and Atherby Alters were getting organized with their own teleporters, waiting for the moment to jump in. Everything was tense, all eyes on the camp in the distance.

“I wish I was there,” Roxa muttered beside me. She sounded surprised by her own voice, her own words. Lifting her chin, she stared down at the dots that were Mateo and the others. “… I wish I was there. Not here. I want to be with them. I should be with them.”

“You’d give away their cover,” Tristan reminded the girl. “Every single Were down there would see you as a Heretic. And they know there’s only one were-Heretic on their side. Pace.”

“I know,” she mumbled, arms folded. “But I don’t have to like it.” The girl rested a hand on Gidget’s head, who was busy glowering down at the figures in the distance.

It was Enguerrand who spoke up, his voice quiet, yet measured. “You are devoted to your allies, Miss Pittman. It is an admirable quality, and one that many should learn to emulate.”   

Before anyone else could respond to that, Quing spat a series of words that I didn’t know, but sounded an awful lot like curses. My head snapped that way to ask what was wrong, but then I saw it. In the field below, Mateo and his people had been surrounded by a ring of other weres. At the front of them was a figure I couldn’t make out the details of, but something told me it was…

“Lemuel,” Roxa snarled, binoculars held to her eyes. “It’s him and his pack. Mateo and the others are in trouble.” She dropped the binoculars, taking a step that way.

“Wait,” I caught her arm. “The other Alters are gonna make their move now. The plan can still–”

“Screw the plan,” the other girl snapped. “Screw everything. I’m not gonna stand here and let that psycho hurt Mateo or any of the others. I’m not gonna stand here and watch them die! Gidget!” At the sound of her name, the cyberform abruptly shape-shifted and folded in on herself, going from cougar to armored hoverboard as Roxa stepped up on her back.

My hand stayed on her arm, and I started to say something else to convince her to wait. Before I could, however, the sound of a cry from far below caught our attention.

Fighting. Mateo’s pack and the other weres were fighting. It had devolved into an all-out brawl. Exactly like it was supposed to. Not as far in as they’d planned, but still. Lemuel was there and the focus was on Mateo’s people.

As outnumbered as they were, they couldn’t last long like that, with everyone’s focus on them. Luckily, however, they didn’t need to. The moment the fight was underway, I heard calls from the Alters around us. They had already organized themselves into groups. Seeing the brawl underway, the cry went up to move in.

In groups of mostly three or four, the Wonderland and Atherby Alters vanished, only to reappear at spots on either side of the were-encampment in the desert valley below. Lemuel’s recruits barely had time to tear their attention away from the brawl at the edge of the camp to realize that they were being attacked by more Alters. In seconds, what had begun as a relatively easy curbstomp of Mateo’s people was suddenly an all-out war as dozens of beings from both sides fell in on each other.

Roxa tugged her arm away from my grip then. “I’m going to be with my pack,” she informed me. “I won’t abandon them.” As the blonde girl gave a sharp whistle, Gidget flew off the ground, diving down to join Mateo and the others.

“Shit,” I muttered. “Okay. Pace. We focus on Pace. Get the choker from her while helping everyone else, like Mateo said. Where is she?”

Quing pointed a feathered hand down into the chaotic battlefield. “There. She is… enjoying herself.” He grimaced a little before speaking again. “Tulmin, to your left. Buddy, take three steps forward, the bear behind the tent is trying to ambush our friends. Scolpa, weresnake burrowing under you, move now.”

He was acting as a sort-of overwatch, I realized. The bird-man was keeping an eye on everything that was going on, and communicating with the Wonderland Alters somehow to give them directions and advice.

Swallowing, I looked back to the others. Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan from Crossroads. Duncan, Misty, and Enguerrand from the Atherby camp. And myself. “Right in the middle of things. Great. Okay, guys… um…” I didn’t know what to say. I froze up.

“We’re doing this,” Avalon interrupted. Her gaze was steady as her hand moved to very briefly touch mine before falling back. Straightening, she nodded toward Berlin. “Take us in.”

“I think she means,” Shiori started, “Beam us–”

And just like that, we weren’t watching the battle anymore.

We were in the middle of it.

******

I was standing a few yards away from a canvas tent, staff in one hand. To my right, there was a scream of panic, accompanied by the savage roar of a wolf and the sound of tearing meat and crunching bone. The scream turned to gurgles before stopping entirely. The sound of the wolf’s victorious snarl turned to a squeal as a larger figure slammed into it hard enough to shatter half the bones in the wolf’s body.

I didn’t even know which of them was on my side. I should have, but in the heat of the moment, in the dust and furious sounds around me, my brain froze up for a second. I stood there, surrounded by blood, by violence, by death.

Ahead of me, a dark-blue, twelve-foot-tall giant with no shirt was locked in a pitched battle with a nine-foot tall werebear. Despite the height advantage, they both seemed to be equally matched, neither giving an inch. A little to the right of them, a were in full wolf-form bounded forward and started to leap, only to tumble backward with a yelp as an arrow whistled through the air and straight into the wolf’s eye. Fennicus, the centaur, galloped past while already lining up another shot with his bow that took the still tumbling wolf in the side. To the left and a hundred yards away, Seth was busy dealing with a pair of werewolves in their half-wolf forms, as well as a fully-formed jaguar. Meanwhile, there was a giant vulture swooping around above him that kept trying to dive in, only to be thwarted repeatedly by the tiny, darting figure that was Namythiet.

Hell, right nearby, I could see the natural Heretics from the Atherby camp going to work. Misty had her enormous sword, the thing that was big as she was, spinning over her head like it was made out of foam. A massive, armored werecrocodile was lunging for her, jaws snapping down. Just before it would have bitten her in half, however, she shoved that sword into its mouth, catching the descending jaws. As the crocodile made a noise of surprise, the tiny waif of a girl grinned before triggering something on the handle of her giant sword. An instant later, the croc was literally hurtled away as a deafening boom filled the air. Smoke was coming out of the end of the sword, which had opened up a bit to reveal a gun barrel equally huge. Even as the crocodile flailed its way back to the ground with a hole in its back (injured, but not dead), Misty was shouting something about loving cannons.

“Chambers!” Avalon’s shout penetrated my briefly frozen mind, and my eyes focused on her. She and the others were all standing behind me, spaced out a little bit. “Don’t tunnel vision,” the other girl snapped while pivoting, eyes scanning. “You’re not a spectator! You know better than that!”

“Got it, sorry.” Focusing, I hoisted my staff into position, ordering Jaq and Gus into position to convert the thing into its bladed-form right from the start. The others already had their weapons drawn, and had spaced themselves out enough not to get in each other’s way. Which was good, because it was at that moment that the weres surrounding us realized that they had even more company. Heretic company. And they weren’t too happy about it.

As the shout went up and around them, Avalon spoke flatly. “Clear a hole, get to Pace. That’s what matters. She doesn’t get away.”

And that was all she had time to say before the surrounding weres fell in on us.

The werelion that ran straight at me in his half-human form was clearly young. Maybe even my age. He was eager, too eager to have fought many Heretics and probably still too awed by his own power to consider that someone else might be able to match or beat it. He wore ragged jean shorts that had mostly snapped under the force and pressure of his body growing into the larger battle-form, and no shirt. His chest was crisscrossed with some kind of barbed-wire tattoo with a skull in the top center, just under his throat. In this battle-form, he was much heavier and more muscled than a normal human, with a fine down-like layer of fur over his skin, a face that looked rough and bumpy like a neanderthal, incredibly pronounced teeth, and visible claws protruding from his slightly elongated fingers. Oh, and he had a mane of hair surrounding his head. 

He lunged, one long, muscled arm lashing out to bring those nasty-looking claws swiping at me. In response, I took a quick step forward, pivoting to put my back to the lion-man while bringing my staff up vertically in my right hand. His swinging arm was caught against the staff, blocking him from cutting me. At the same time, I continued my pivot, driving the elbow of my left arm back hard into his face. With the strength of a normal seventeen-year-old girl, he would have shrugged it off. But I had the absorbed strength from Valentine, delivering a blow to his jaw that knocked the werelion stumbling back a step.

Following that up without an instant of hesitation, I continued turning until I was facing the figure, who was just then catching himself. He recovered quickly, launching himself forward once more while lashing out with a series of wild swings. But I was already set, spinning my staff up to catch the first swing from his left arm before snapping the other end up to smack his right arm out of the way, then back again for the left. One, two, three, all in the span of about a second. Before he could attack again, my staff was snapping up, spinning in my hands so that one of the flat sides of of the grapple smacked off the bottom of his chin, snapping his head back to expose his throat. An instant later, the staff continued spinning in my hands so that the other end with its attached blade sliced a hole right through his exposed jugular.

Once more, he stumbled back, grabbing for his throat with widened eyes as it spurted blood. Without waiting for him to even realize just how bad the injury was, I took two quick steps forward and leapt up, kicking out to put my foot into his shoulder. The blow knocked him backwards and down, so that he landed on his back with me standing on top of him, one foot still on his shoulder, while the other rested on his stomach. He stared up at me, gurgling for a second just before I brought the bladed-end of the staff down with a decisive slash that separated his head from his neck.

Doubling over a bit as the pleasure rushed through me, I had the sense of mind to mutter, “Did I forget to mention that Nevada added enough silver to Jaq and Gus to let them hurt a were? Oops.”

Because yeah, knowing how soon I was going to be fighting werewolves again (especially given how they’d basically named me as one of their enemies), I would’ve been an idiot not to ask Nevada to include silver in my weapon upgrades. And as for not telling anyone else about it, well, that let it be my little secret.

The others were just as busy. To my left, I caught a glimpse of the Moon twins working together against a fully-transformed werejaguar. As the supernatural wildcat leapt at them, Vanessa’s whip cracked the air directly in front of it. As it did so, a glowing red circle about the size of a manhole cover appeared. When the jaguar passed through it, the thing burst into flame. With a squeal, the transformed Alter dropped to the ground, its fur on fire as it rolled and flailed to put it out.

Yeah, at the beginning of the year, the whip that Vanessa used had just been capable of exchanging any inanimate material it struck with any other inanimate material. But apparently, I wasn’t the only one who upgraded my weapon as time went on. Now the whip could produce those ‘mines’ of different elemental effects. Not just fire, but lightning, ice, and even a poison gas.

While the burning jaguar was recovering, Tristan took aim. Bobbi-Bobbi, his cyberform snake, was in her weapon-mode. The lower half of the long mechanical serpent was wrapped around his upper body to form a sort-of protective armor, while her upper-half and head had attached itself to Tristan’s arm. It made him look like a bit like MegaMan with his armcannon. You know, if MegaMan’s armcannon looked like the head of a snake at the end.

It looked even more like the video game robot when the blast of powerful red light shot out of his cannon to collide with the fallen jaguar, knocking the thing back down long enough for Vanessa to wrap her whip around its hind legs. A hard yank pulled the figure across the ground close enough for Tristan to jump on it with his silver knife.

Shiori and Avalon were equally busy, also working together. In their case, there was a gigantic fucking wererhino galloping around them. It had shrugged off all their attempts to do damage to its heavily armored hide. Even the silver knives couldn’t actually penetrate, despite all their efforts. They could avoid his charges, but not really do any damage. And if they left him alone, sooner or later, he’d find his target.

Finally, the two of them looked at each other. There was a brief exchange of about three words between them before they nodded. Then the pair ran straight for the rhino, even as he ran at them.

Avalon’s inherited speed allowed her to run at about thirty miles per hour. She used that to her advantage, quickly moving ahead of Shiori. At the last second, she jumped, the leap carrying her up and over the thing. As she flew above it, both of hands lashed out. From her gauntlets, a pair of energy coils extended and flew down to wrap around the rhino’s horn. Avalon landed on its back while heaving on the energy coils as hard as she could.

Shiori, meanwhile, stood her ground as the wererhino ran straight for her. I wanted to cry out, but stopped myself. Distracting the girls right then would be… bad.

They were ready anyway. As Avalon yanked back on the coils that she’d wrapped around the rhino’s horn, it involuntarily opened its mouth. And as it did so, Shiori opened her own mouth. A deafening scream erupted from the girl. It was like she was speaking in literal thunder.

And that thunder was accompanied by lightning. The girl had combined the sonic scream that she had inherited from the Cù-Sith she had fought back when we were dealing with Fahsteth, with the lightning breath she had inherited from the Jekern. As a result, she could literally scream lightning with associated thunder.

The combined sonic and electrical attack tore straight into the charging rhino’s open mouth, avoiding all of its armor entirely in the process. The force of it stopped the thing in its tracks, while the lightning knocked it to the ground, twitching along with the burning smell of flesh.

Before it could recover, Avalon hopped off, spun around, and lashed out with her gauntlet. A blade of energy appeared in mid-swing, cutting through the rhino’s open mouth and up into its brain. Avalon’s pale green aura quickly rose around her.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. Shiori shouted a warning, just as a second werecrocodile, different from the one that Misty had been dealing with, appeared almost out of nowhere. This one was in half-human form. He looked like a massive green-scaled figure with a long, bladed tail and an elongated mouth. Actually, he almost looked more like a half-dinosaur than a half-crocodile. He grabbed for Avalon, who managed to slip free just in time to spin around and kick out. Shiori was already there, going up on his opposite side.

Then I saw it. From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of one of the pickup trucks that had been parked along the edge of the camp. It was heading out, swerving around the worst of the fighting. And behind the wheel was–

“Pace!” I blurted, raising a hand to point at the truck.

Avalon, still grappling with the half-crocodile, grimaced. “Stop her, Chambers!”

Stop her. Right. I could do that. Taking a breath, I looked at my staff, at the transformed Jaq and Gus. “All right, guys. Let’s do this.”

With that, I started to move. Cutting a diagonal path across the battlefield not toward where the truck was, but the way it was heading, I sprinted..Ten feet in, and a tiger was coming straight at me, gathering itself for a leap. At the last second, however, a sedan came flying in out of nowhere to smack into the tiger. And that was literally flying. That Duncan guy was nearby. With a flick of his hand, he sent the empty car flying up before bringing it down hard on top of the still dazed weretiger.

I kept going, truck in sight as it rounded the corner of the camp. A short burst from my staff carried me on top of the sedan that Duncan was using, and he gave it a hard shove upward, a move that, combined with another burst from my staff, carried me a good half of the distance I needed to cover.

Running, running. Others were faster than I was, but I could go all-out for hours. I sprinted across the camp, even as not just one, but two positively massive bears reared up to block my path. The things were huge, twelve feet tall if they were an inch. Even as the one on the left hauled itself up, however, something much smaller knocked it back down again. Misty came flying in out of nowhere, her tiny figure looking more like a toothpick that the bear would use. But her fist slammed into the bear’s face with enough force to knock the damn thing onto its back, even as Misty gave an excited whoop.  

The bear on the right, meanwhile, had just turned that way when someone else approached. Enguerrand. He jumped at the thing too, but rather than slamming into it, he… well, errr… slammed into it. Literally. The man disappeared. For a second I thought he’d gone through the thing. But he never came out the other side. The bear, meanwhile, staggered for a second, then pivoted and leapt onto one of the nearby barechested half-wolves.

Possessed him. Enguerrand literally possessed the bear, like a–

Truck! Focus on the truck, it was getting away. And these guys had just cleared enough of a path to catch up. Grimacing, I took off again. This time, nothing was going to stop me from getting to that truck, from getting to Pace.

Arms, claws, and tails lashed out at me, most haphazardly as I moved in and then out of their range I ducked, dove, rolled, then popped up and kept running. I hopped over a fallen tent, dropped into a slide to take myself under a swinging sword, and narrowly spun away from a burst of fire. Through it all, I kept my eyes on that truck as it hurtled its way across the desert, heading for a bumpy dirt road that would lead it out of the battlefield. And through it all, I kept charging my staff.

Time it right, had to time it just right. If I didn’t, I was gonna lose the truck entirely. Three seconds, two seconds, one second–now, now, now! Flipping my staff around and down, I pointed it at the ground before triggering a burst that sent me flying up and forward. Again, not to where the truck was, but to where it was going to be. Right at the spot where the actual road started, the road that would take the truck, with Pace inside it, away from the fight.

By the time I reached the apex of my flight, I had already converted my staff into its bow form. Flipping over in the air to point my feet up so that I could look straight down, I took aim, using the last of the staff’s kinetic charge to set a powerful energy arrow just as the truck approached. As it passed directly beneath me, I loosed the shot with a grunt.

The arrow careened down, colliding with the back of the pickup before releasing all of its charged-up kinetic force. The explosion of energy from the impact literally launched the speeding truck up and over, sending it flipping end over end a few times before it came down on its hood and roof.

Landing in a kneeling position a second later, I kept my eyes focused on the truck. There was no way that would even slow Pace down very much, let alone actually hurt her.

Sure enough, the crazy (probably possessed) werewolf-Heretic crawled out of the truck, picking herself up with a squeal that I belatedly realized was a laugh. “Whooo! That was fun! Let’s do it again, do it again, do it again!”

“Later,” another voice grunted. The door of the truck was kicked free, flying a good fifteen feet before a second figure shoved himself out and stood.

Lemuel. It was Pace and Lemuel. Both of them focused on me, almost identical smiles coming to their faces.

“Aww,” Pace announced with a giggle of joy. “Present came back! Let’s play with the present. Huh, huh, can we?”

“Oh,” Lemuel replied, the pack-leader already shifting into his much larger half-wolf form. “I think we can spare enough time to unwrap your treat.”

“Yay!” Pace bounced up and down like an excited little girl, even as she produced two silver knives, one in each hand. “How fun! And she’s all by herself too!”

There was a sudden sound in the air above me, before a figure landed at my side.

“Wanna bet?” Roxa asked Pace, even as Gidget dropped to transform into her cougar shape beside her. To me, she added, “Sorry. I… I had to help them.”

“No problem,” I replied, raising my staff. “You’re here when it counts.”

Lemuel lifted his chin then, his smile growing. “My little pup? How… glorious. This’ll be fun.”

“I’m not helpless this time, you piece of shit,” Roxa snarled at him.

Lemuel’s response was a low chuckle. “Good,” he retorted. “I prefer it when my toys have a little spirit to them. Makes it a lot more fun when they break.”

He and Pace glanced to each other for a half-second.

And with that, they lunged.

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Suspects 24-05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So in the end, I just… talked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was going to be a war.  

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Mini-Interlude 33 – Columbus

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Columbus. It takes place a few nights before the current situation. 

Completely alone, yet without any privacy. Helplessly trapped, as he stood in the open sunlight, surrounded by friends and family. Cut off, broken and caged… while casually chatting with some of the people who meant the most in the world to him. Columbus Porter’s body held no visible chains or locks. Yet he was as much of prisoner now as any person in history had ever been.

Standing in the hallway just outside his own room in the middle of the night, Columbus’s eyes looked first one way, then the other down the corridor. As he took in the sight of the dark, empty hall, the boy strained to shout, tried to say something, anything. Making a noise, twitching a finger, blinking just once by his own volition. Just blink, that was it. That would convince him that there was at least the slightest chance, if he worked hard enough, that he could eventually communicate. Just blink. One single, solitary blink. Do it. Blink. Blink. Blink, damn it!

I’m getting the distinct impression that you don’t like me very much, boy.

The voice in his head was distinctly amused, before his eye blinked once, twice, three times. Yet Columbus wasn’t naive enough to think that he had finally succeeded. No, this was his jailer, the creature who had taken over his body, taunting him by showing how much she could make him blink, how much she could make him do anything she wanted. She was making a point, again.

You’re supposed to be an angel, right? He thought the words at her, at that inescapable presence in his mind that sorted through his every thought, his every memory and impulse. So why don’t you do me a favor and go to hell?

Another slight chuckle from his jailer, the one called Charmeine. You already know the ones that you call demons, boy. And this hell you speak of is their world, their home, their space.

Fomorians. The word came from Columbus without prompting. He knew. They’d had the conversation before. At least as much as the Seosten woman bothered having conversations with him. He had the distinct impression that she saw him more as a horse than a person. Except even that wasn’t right, because most people cared what happened to their horses.

Aww, don’t be like that. I care about what happens to you. The tone didn’t inspire confidence in that claim. It was too… dark, too amused by his feelings. After all, if you die, I have to find a new body. Maybe your roommate would work. Or… hmm, there’s always that team mentor. What do you think, roommate or mentor? Little Felicity’s step-daddy’s not immune to possession.

You know, Columbus thought, unable to help himself, if you put half as much effort into trying to figure out why Flick’s immune to you as you put into making snide remarks, you might’ve gotten somewhere by now.

Because it wasn’t just the Seosten possession that Flick had somehow been made immune to. Several attempts at using Seosten magic to influence or change her had failed as well. Charmeine had secretly entered the girls’ room and put some kind of spell on her pillow to put her into a coma in order to get her out of the way. Yet, somehow, it hadn’t worked. That, along with a couple other failed attempts to place an enchantment of some kind on the blonde girl had convinced Charmeine’s superiors to add Flick herself to the watch list. Charmeine wanted to just kill her and be done with it, like they had with Pericles, but the one called Manakel had vetoed that. Apparently it was too dangerous with the kind of attention Flick had on her, and their superiors wanted to know more about why the girl was apparently immune not only to their possession, but also much of their magic.

After all, the only option aside from her being immune to the spells that had been left for her was that she had somehow disabled them. But that would require more knowledge of magic than Flick had, and it would mean that she’d never actually brought it up with anyone as far as Columbus knew.

I think… All of the amusement had vanished from Charmeine’s tone. … that you need a reminder of your exact position in this relationship. As she finished speaking… thinking, whatever, Columbus found his body turning to walk down the hall and to the exit of the building.

It had been the wrong thing to say, wrong to say anything at all. Columbus had known that. Yet after everything that had happened, as helpless as he was, the chance to get even a little back at the creature who had imprisoned and enslaved him for so long was too hard to resist.

It had happened at the airport in Jackson, back during the Thanksgiving trip. While he had been waiting for Shiori, Flick, and her father to show up, Columbus had gone into the bathroom. While he was washing his hands, a dark-skinned woman with short white hair had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Before he could react, she had reached out to touch him. The next thing he knew, his body was no longer his own. He couldn’t speak, move, or control any part of himself. All of it was done by the creature who had so easily taken him prisoner through a simple touch.

From that moment on, throughout the holiday trip, throughout finding out about the Fomorian attacking Koren’s family, what had happened to Roxa, and all the rest of it, Columbus had been puppeted by this creature. It had been months by that point. Months since he could even twitch an eyebrow by his own volition. At this point, Columbus wasn’t sure he remembered what controlling his own body was even like.

And yet somehow, as his body walked out the door of the dorm building, he still felt like he’d made a mistake by provoking the creature that was infesting him. As bad as things were, there were always ways that it could get worse.

Even as Charmeine took him outside, she was moving his hand to his pocket. Tugging out a small medallion, she made his mouth speak a single word, the activation trigger for the spell that had been placed on it. A moment later, his hand (along with the rest of his body) turned translucent to his own gaze. From previous experience, the boy knew that he was now completely invisible to everyone else. Not even Gaia had been aware of his presence the last time his puppeteer had used the spell to spy on her.

Granted, even Charmeine wasn’t confident enough in the spell to risk actually doing anything or getting close to the headmistress. But still, the fact that she could put his body in the same room as the powerful Heretic without being noticed was terrifying.

It also meant that neither of the security guards who chose that moment to walk past on their patrol had a chance of knowing that Columbus was standing within a few feet of them. They chatted with one another about some baseball game they had been watching, pausing to look over the door that Columbus had just come out of before moving on.

Once they were gone, Charmeine directed his body across the grass and up toward the entrance of the girl’s dorm. The stealth spell affected even the golden statue of the woman with the bow and arrow who was meant to keep underage boys out of the dorm. It stood still and motionless even as his body opened the door and stepped through into the hallway.

To his surprise, rather than heading for the room that Flick and Avalon shared, Charmeine directed his body further down the hall. Eventually, he stopped in front of a different door, the one that led into the room that Shiori shared with Rebecca Jameson.

Again, his hand dipped into a pocket and came out, this time with a small hand-held mirror. Holding the mirror up to the door, with the glass facing him, Columbus’s lips murmured another spell. The surface of the mirror changed from showing his reflection to reveal the interior of the room that it was pointed at. It was even lit up despite the fact that the room on the other side of the door was pitch dark.

Charmeine kept the mirror up long enough to confirm that both of the room’s inhabitants were accounted for and asleep before making his hand reach out to quietly open the door. It came easily, since she had long-since acquired a master key that unlocked every door in the school whenever needed.

Hey, wait. What are you doing? Columbus cut in even as his body inexorably stepped into the room and closed the door after himself. You can’t possess Shiori and Rebecca doesn’t know anything about what’s going on.

One thing you need to learn, the voice in his head informed him, is that I don’t need to possess people to make them useful.

With that, Columbus found himself flicking on the magical privacy screen that instantly surrounded his sister’s bed before walking over to the girl herself. She was laying there on her stomach, one leg sticking out of the covers and off the bed while snoring faintly. The same as she had when they were little and a bad dream had driven her into Columbus’s room.

His hand reached out, gently brushing a little bit of hair off of Shiori’s face even as he quickly thought, Hey, hey. Wait a minute, leave her alone. You said yourself if you possess her, it’ll kill you. She’s no use to you, right? So stop, just stop.

As I told you, she replied flatly, there is more than one way to make the girl useful. Perhaps she’ll serve as an adequate reminder of your place.

Reminder of my place? He was incredulous. I can’t do anything, remember? I can’t stop you, I can’t even make myself blink! What do you have to prove? You can’t possess her and she can’t do anything for you. So what–what are you…

He trailed off as his hand carefully removed a necklace from one of his pockets. Within a couple of seconds, he had hooked it around Shiori’s neck before giving her face a pat.

Now, the voice in his head announced, there’s no chance of her waking up until the necklace is removed. See?

In demonstration, his hand lashed out to smack Shiori hard against the face. Her head snapped a bit to the side, yet her snoring never wavered. And with the privacy field up, Rebecca didn’t hear anything either.

Stop it! Yet again, Columbus struggled to yank his hand away from his sister. Yet for all his effort, he accomplished nothing. Once more, he found himself smacking Shiori hard enough to bruise her cheek. A bruise that would disappear by the time she woke up, thanks to the girl’s regeneration.

You understand now? Charmeine taunted, moving his hand over his sister’s cheek and down to her shoulder to squeeze it. As long as the necklace stays on, she’s Sleeping Beauty. Nothing will wake her up. Maybe… maybe she won’t wake up at all.

At that thought, Columbus found his hand move slowly, yet inevitably to the other girl’s throat. His fingers closed around it, tightening enough that her snoring was cut off.

I’m sure you remember, his puppeteer announced conversationally, just how strong you are while I’m possessing you. You know how strong I can make you. Shall we see if it’s… His hand tightened even further, to the point that he could feel Shiori’s throat on the brink of collapsing. …. Strong enough?

No! No, no, no, no! Please, please! Leave her alone! Leave Shiori alone, please! She can’t help you, she can’t hurt you, she can’t do anything! She’s nothing to you, please!

Ah, but you see… it doesn’t matter what she is to me, Charmeine reminded him. What matters is what she is to you. And to you, she is… an adequate punishment for mouthing off.

I’m sorry! I’m sorry, please, please, I just–I’m sorry! Just leave her alone, please. You don’t need to do this! You don’t have to–

Her tone was as devoid of empathy as any he had ever heard. It’s not about what I have to do. It’s about what I want to do. You think I embodied the concept of revenge during our godly days by mistake? No one crosses me without paying for it a hundred-fold.

His hand left Shiori’s throat, allowing the girl to breathe. Rather than simply leaving, however, Columbus found himself stepping across the room to where Rebecca slept.

Still, perhaps a better punishment is in order, Charmeine mused. If this girl were to… die and all evidence pointed to the silly child there… that could draw in enough of an investigation to reveal her true nature.

The horror in Columbus’s own thoughts was almost palpable. Wh-what? What do you–

If this girl dies in a way that makes it appear as though your lovely sister is responsible, and during the course of that investigation, they find that she is a dhampyr… Now the amusement in Charmeine’s thought-voice was even more obvious. Well, that would be just perfect, wouldn’t it? She’ll be blamed for the death of an innocent girl and be put down as a monster, the very monster she’s been so terrified of being for so long.

She gets put out of the way so that there’s one less problem to deal with, the Heretics here find out that hybrids can become students and thus a new inquisition is launched to root them out so that all of Gaia’s machinations in that regard are brought out. She might even be stripped of her position in the process.

And, she finished darkly, you learn not to cross me. Win, win, win.

No, no, no! Please, please, please, I swear, I won’t say anything. God, god, no, please! Leave them alone. Please, you don’t–you can–please!

All of this, all of it, just because he’d made a single taunting remark, a single thought in rebellion against everything that was happening. One time, one single time he’d managed to insult her, managed to hit back. And this was how she reacted.

The worst part of this entire situation was that, as terrified, helpless and broken as Columbus felt in that moment, his mouth still smiled. He couldn’t cry, he couldn’t even make his own eyes close. He couldn’t look away from Rebecca’s sleeping form as his own hand moved out to touch her throat.

His helpless, pathetic pleading grew more desperate. Charmeine toyed with the small girl’s throat, not going far enough to actually do any damage. Not yet, anyway. Unlike Shiori, she wasn’t wearing a necklace that would have kept her asleep through it. Still, the Seosten made it clear that at any second, she could close her hand and cut off the girl’s air completely.

Of course, Charmeine eventually mused while taking his hand away from Rebecca, doing all that right now… well, it doesn’t leave you any time to stew on things, does it? And where’s the fun in that?

So I’ll tell you what. You think about it for awhile. Maybe I’ll take care of this tomorrow night. Or the next night. Or next week. Or even next month. Maybe I’ll just find other ways to hurt her, ways that can make this drag on for awhile instead of letting it all go out in one night. You can worry about it. Because, in some ways, that’s the most delicious part. Your fear, your worry, your begging. And please, do come up with more interesting ways to beg. The old ways just… they’re played out. They’re boring.

Making Columbus’s body step over to retrieve the necklace from Shiori, she then directed him to start out of the room, leaving both girls unharmed… for the moment.

And the last thing you want, boy, is for me to be bored.

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Suspects 24-01

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a few days ago, focusing on Gabriel Ruthers and Calafia. If you haven’t read that yet, you might wish to hit the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I would kill for Miranda’s duplication powers right now.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I paused, head tilting a little bit. “Eeesh. You know, I guess when Heretics say something like that, it comes off as a lot more sinister than it should.”

We were back on the island. Well, to be specific, we were on the opposite side of the island from the school. The beach over here was a lot rockier (and smaller) than the one by the school itself. Probably because it hadn’t been specifically maintained or designed for a bunch of students. The jungle was also much closer, not to mention darker. We were so far away from any big cities that the moon and stars were a lot brighter than they would’ve been. But even then, the light seemed to fail at the edge of the jungle, leaving a dark maw right at the treeline.

Beside me, Shiori’s face was half-illuminated by the moon. It was distractingly pretty, even in this situation. “I know what you mean. I overheard a couple sophomores a few days ago. They were talking about how they hoped a Stranger with a fast-metabolism would show up soon so they could kill it and eat as much chocolate as they wanted. They were laughing about it.”

Wincing then, I looked over toward Avalon. The girl was standing on the edge of the small, rocky beach, watching the ocean in the distance. She hadn’t said much since Gabriel had dropped us off here, clearly still lost in obsessing over how she could’ve killed Fahsteth before he got away.

I wanted to say something to her, but I wasn’t sure what. So I just sighed and nodded. “I just wish I could duplicate myself. My dad… I need to talk to my dad, not wait around to be interrogated by a bunch of Committee puppets who are gonna pick over everything I say or do.”

Shiori’s hand found mine, squeezing it. “Gaia’ll get you through it as fast as she can,” she promised. “And until you can get there, Senny and Twist are gonna keep him safe. It’ll be okay.”

Returning the squeeze, I swallowed. “I just don’t get it. He broke the Bystander Effect? That’s not–I mean it’s not supposed to be–I mean… “ I groaned out loud then. “I need to talk to him!”

“You will, Miss Chambers,” Professor Dare abruptly spoke from a few feet away, making all of us whip around that way. She was standing there, calmly watching us. Yet behind that calm, there was something else. A certain… tension, a worry that she was doing a good, yet not perfect job at hiding. It was some kind of mixture of hidden fear and relief when she looked at us. Which could have been just her being glad that we had made it back to the island, or… was she actually possessed and afraid that we had found out? At this point, I honestly had no idea.

“Good… morning, would be the appropriate term at this point, I believe,” she started flatly. Her eyes danced over us briefly before the blonde woman continued. “I’ve been told that where you were and what you were doing needs to remain a secret for the time being. Operational security.” She paused, clearly not happy about that before pushing on. “But you do need to know what you were supposed to have been doing. So as far as the Committee’s representatives and anyone else who asks are concerned, you two–” she nodded to Avalon and Shiori, “–were asleep in your beds, where you belong. So we’ll send you right back there.”

As they nodded, I asked, “What about me? We were supposed to be out on a training session?”

Professor Dare nodded. “You were with me. We were investigating a zombie nest in Detroit, where an old friend of mine has been staying. I took you with me because you have experience with killing zombies and for exercise and more training. We killed the zombies, then you watched for more outside while I destroyed the source. Do you have any questions?”

After I shook my head, she held up a water bottle that was full of… uh, really gross stuff. It looked like a mixture of blood and mushed up… bits. “All right, squirt this over yourself. It’ll help sell that you were in a fight with zombies. And if you’re messy, they’re more likely to let you leave quickly, as soon as you tell them that you don’t know what happened to your father.”

Pausing then, she looked at me, her face softening as she held the bottle out. “Is he all right?”

Biting my lip, I gave a hesitant nod. “As far as I know. He’s still with Asenath and all that, they just… had to leave. Those werewolves attacked and–” I cut myself off, swallowing. “He’s okay.”

As I finished talking, my hand took the bottle from Professor Dare. Reluctantly, I popped the top open and started to spill it over the front of my shirt, down one of my arms, over my legs, and then some down my back. The whole time, I had to suppress the urge to gag, or worse. The stuff smelled awful. Which was probably intentional, as part of Dare’s whole ‘make them let me go quickly’ plan. Still, I wished that I’d inherited the ability to turn off my own sense of smell.

Speaking of sense of smell, Shiori wrinkled her nose with distaste while taking a couple steps back. “Uh, no offense, but I think I’ll just wish you luck from over here. So, uh, good luck.”  

Avalon did pretty much the same, and I stuck my tongue out at both of them. “Chickens.”

Dare was smiling faintly, head shaking as she gestured to the other two. “All right, if you’re ready, I’ll send the message to lower the defenses so that you can get back into your dorm.” She waited until they nodded before turning away slightly. Going still, her eyes closed and she was clearly focusing for a moment before opening her eyes. “Okay, I’m sending you in. Make sure you go right to bed. There’s not much of the night left. Get as much sleep as you can.”

With that, Dare gestured, teleporting Avalon and Shiori across the island and into the school. Which left her alone with me. If she was one of the people who was possessed, either Manakel or Charmeine, now probably would’ve been a great time for her to do something about me.

Except maybe not. Since Gaia was probably at least somewhat paying attention to what was going on in between keeping the Committee reps busy, maybe now would be a bad time for a possibly-possessed Dare to try anything. Either way, what it came down to was that this paranoia sucked. I hated looking at Professor Dare and wondering if she was actually being puppeted by some psychopathic alien fuck. We needed to get that choker from Pace, soon.

“Flick?” Dare interrupted my thoughts, raising an eyebrow. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Snapping out of it, I made myself nod quickly. “I’m just worried about my dad,” I claimed, since it wasn’t that much of a lie. “I don’t wanna be here right now. I need to get to him, not… do this.”

The woman’s face was sympathetic. “Of course. We’ll get you through this as soon as possible. If there was a way to fake it… I’d take your place, but it’s likely that they have the ability to detect illusions or shapeshifters. So we need you to be there in person. But Gaia and I will both be there with you, and we’ll make sure they can’t detect any lies that you tell. Are you ready?”

Taking a breath, I let it out again before making myself nod. “Yeah, I guess so. Let’s do this.”

With a wave of Dare’s hand, we were suddenly on the grounds of the school, right in front of the main building. She gestured for me to go ahead, then followed as I walked up to the doors. Together, we walked down the hall and then to a set of stairs that led up to the second floor, where she indicated a door for me to head for. As I moved that way, it opened to reveal Gaia standing there, with a couple men that I’d never seen before a bit further in. They were all waiting.

“Miss Chambers,” Gaia greeted me while gesturing for me to enter the room. “I trust you’re alright and everything went well?” She waited until Dare was in, then shut the door after her.

My head bobbed. “Yup. Just call me Jill Valentine, because those are some dead zombies.”

“As long as you don’t make us call you Alice,” one of the men in the room spoke up, drawing my attention that way as he gave me a slight smile. “Never could stand the movies because of her.”

The guy wasn’t what I expected a representative from the Committee to look like. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties, with dirty blonde hair that reached his shoulders, but tied back in a ponytail. He had a dark blue flower print Hawaiian shirt on, along with a loose pair of white pants, and simple white slip-on shoes without any socks. His eyes were covered by mirrored sunglasses, and I saw a cell phone case clipped to his brown belt that was probably a weapon.  

“Sorry,” he announced, extending a hand. “Name’s October. And you’re Felicity Chambers.”

Accepting the handshake, I gestured at myself. “That’s, uh, that’s me. Sorry about the gross. Professor Dare said that we were supposed to come in immediately, that it was important.”

“It is.” The reply came from the other man, who could not have looked more unlike October if he tried. He was black, and wore a stiff-looking dark suit and tie with a red shirt. While October looked like he would’ve been home sipping a Mai Tai out on the beach, this guy looked as though he had just walked straight off the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange.

“Patrick,” he announced when I looked at him. “And we need–” He paused, reaching into the inside pocket of his suit jacket before pulling out a fancy embroidered white handkerchief. Holding it up, he murmured the trigger of a spell before handing it to me. “Here, try this.”

I did so, pressing the cloth against the worst of the blood and goop on the front of my shirt. Sure enough, at the slightest touch, the stuff rubbed right off. Even better, it didn’t stick to the handkerchief at all. It was like it just disappeared. Quickly, I wiped the rest of the stuff off me before sniffing. Even the smell was gone. “Wow, okay, why haven’t we learned that spell yet?”

“Soon,” Gaia promised, smiling faintly before sobering. “But I’m afraid that we have something serious to discuss, Miss Chambers. How long has it been since you heard from your father?”

“Hey, whoa, let’s be a little easier, huh?” That was October, his eyes softening as he looked from Gaia back to me. “Listen, kid, there’s-” He paused, clearly taking a moment to figure out how to say it. “It looks like your father was… it looks like your home was attacked by werewolves.”

Thankfully, all this lying I’d been doing over the past several months had given me experience. Making my eyes widen sharply, I took a step back while loudly babbling. “W-wait, what? What do you mean werewolves? I thought–what–where’s my dad? Is he okay? What happened?”

“We don’t know,” Patrick replied simply. “That’s why we’re here right now. Why don’t you answer your headmistress’s question? When exactly was the last time you spoke to your father?”

“I–I don’t…” Biting my lip, I hesitated as though trying to think of it. Some people thought that answering questions quickly when you were lying was a good idea, because it looked like you didn’t have to think up the answer. But in real life, people did have to think about stuff like that. Answering too quick just made it look like the response was rehearsed. So I stammered a little like the question had caught me off-guard. “The other day, I think? Why, what–what does that have to do with werewolves? And why don’t you know where he is? Is he in the hospital? Is he-”

October took over then, holding a hand up. “As far as we can tell, your father is safe. There’s evidence that he left the house, took a car, and drove to… another house elsewhere in the town. After that, we think he took a car that was parked there and left town. From there, we have no idea. But all the evidence we have indicates that all the werewolves who showed up there were killed in the attempt. Then your dad left, probably with whoever was responsible for killing them.”

“Oh my God. Oh–” Fumbling a bit, I grabbed my regular phone, the non-secret one, from my pocket before hurriedly hitting the button to speed dial my father’s phone. It rang several times with no response. Which wasn’t surprising, since I was sure they’d already ditched the phone so that it couldn’t be traced to them. Still, I made a show of looking increasingly agitated. As it went through to voicemail, I left a quick message asking my dad to call me back, then immediately called back again. I did that twice more, getting the voicemail each time before giving a weak sob that was actually pretty damn convincing, even if I did have to say so myself.

“Hey, hey.” October stepped in then. “It’s okay. Look, we’re sorry. I’m sorry we had to tell you like this. But like I said, someone saved him. There were people there and they killed the werewolves. Even if we don’t know who they are, that’s a good sign, right? They saved him.”

“I–I don’t…” My mouth opened and shut a few times as I stared at the men. “Who–that would have to be a Heretic, wouldn’t it? I mean, no one else would… or could. So why—how–who?”

Patrick started to answer that before pausing as a phone in his suit pocket buzzed. Holding up a finger, he asked us to excuse him while he stepped to the other side of the room to answer it. His voice was a quiet murmur for a moment before he did something that cut off the sound entirely, leaving us unable to hear what either he or whoever was on the phone was saying.

After giving his partner a brief look, October continued. “You’re right, whoever killed the werewolves was probably a Heretic. But they weren’t one of ours. That’s really all we know for sure. It’s possible that they were from Eden’s Garden, or from a… an independent faction.”

Making my eyes widen, I shook my head rapidly. “But–what–what do you mean Eden’s Garden or an independent faction? Why would they–what would they… Why would they be watching our house? Why would they just happen to be there when werewolves attacked my house?”

Looking uncomfortable, the man glanced toward Gaia before answering. “You see, there are… some times when we recruit someone from a Bystander family that has a high potential, like you do, when either independents or Eden’s Garden will decide to poach people from the same family. It’s that potential thing. They think that you had potential, so someone else in the family might. It happens a lot when there’s conflict or disagreement about which of our schools gets to make the initial recruitment. They don’t like losing out, so they try to recruit a family member.”

Well that part was news to me, at least. I stared at him for a second. “You mean you think that they were watching my dad to see if he had potential to be a Heretic, and when the werewolves attacked, they jumped in. And… and then what, they just took him with them and left?”

“It would fit the fact that they went to a house on the other side of town before leaving,” October replied. “That was probably their homebase. From what we can tell, it was sold a couple months ago to a buyer that we can’t track down. Looks like a dead end, which also fits the Heretic theory. Though whether it’s one of Eden’s Gardens or independents, we just don’t know yet.”

“What about Hisao?” I asked then. “If Eden’s Garden had anything to do with it, he’d know, wouldn’t he?”

Gaia spoke up. “We’ve asked him. He says he’ll talk to his contacts, but all the tribes don’t always communicate with each other. If it’s one of the more secretive ones, or one that doesn’t get along with his tribe, there’s no way to know for sure if they’d actually tell him.”

“So–so people from Eden’s Garden will just take other family members when they don’t get the student that they want?” I was still having a little bit of trouble wrapping my head around that.

He shrugged a little. “Yeah, though to be fair, we’ve done it to them before too. It’s a whole thing.” Waving that off, he focused on me. “The point is, we think your dad is… okay. He wasn’t killed by the wolves or anything, and it seems like what took them out were definitely Heretics. Several, from the look of things. He might’ve been hurt, which might be why they took him with them. Or maybe, like I said, they were going for recruitment. We don’t know yet. We’re trying to track them down, but it’s only been a few hours. And you were gone for most of it. Just… give it a little time. If your dad calls you, let us know, okay? It could be Eden’s Garden that saved him, or it could be an independent.”

“Or maybe,” Patrick abruptly announced while hanging up his phone, “it was someone else.”

Gaia raised an eyebrow at that, speaking up for me. “Did you have someone in mind?”

The well-dressed man nodded once before looking straight at me. “Maybe it was the same woman who just killed eleven of our people.”

As I stared at him in confusion, he went on. “A woman who could take on twelve fully-trained Heretics who were in the middle of a mission to clear out a nest of Strangers, killed eleven of them all by herself, and let one go. A female Heretic with a golden kill-aura, like yours. 

“You know anyone who fits that description, Miss Chambers?”

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Sharkhunt 23-07

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Please note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday (along with a special announcement about commissions and monthly rewards). If you haven’t seen it yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above.

Yeah, okay, we really all should’ve seen that coming, to be honest. Avalon had no reason to hold back anymore. After all, this was the guy who had literally killed her mother and then tried to kill her. He was one of the people directly responsible for destroying her family. Honestly, the fact that she’d waited long enough for him to get all the way through his story and give us the cure for Tangle was more surprising than her eventual (inevitable) attack should have been.

Still, despite all that, somehow I still felt surprised in that moment. As the glowing energy blade sliced straight through the shark-man, literally cutting his top half from the bottom, he let out a bellow of rage that filled the room, echoing off the walls almost painfully loud. His lower half, standing there unsupported, collapsed to the floor with a gross, meaty sound.

Things seemed to happen incredibly quickly at that point. There were three sudden, thunderous roars, each so close together they might as well have been one, accompanied by a loud snap-hiss and a bright, focused light that I only caught the slightest glimpse of as something blew right past me. The sounds were followed by three quick, loud clangs, an explosion of shattering glass, a heavy thud, a low humming that was matched almost immediately by a high-pitched whine similar a squealing tire, and finally a sound like tearing, crumpling metal.

Only belatedly, seeing things after the fact and taking it in, did I realize what had happened in what seemed to be about a quarter of a second. First, the three loud roars had been three different shotguns that had snapped out in three of the room’s corners as soon as Avalon drove her blade into Fahsteth. They had all somehow automatically opened fire on her.  

Meanwhile, the snap-hiss sound was a fourth weapon that had come to life. That one was a turret of some kind that had dropped out of the ceiling to shoot an actual laser at Avalon as well. All four defensive measures had centered on the other girl as their target and started shooting.

The thing that had rushed past me was Gabriel. He had interceded. The three quick, successive clangs had been the shotgun rounds impacting and rebounding off the head of his shovel (which looked just fine), and the exploding glass was the rebounding shotgun rounds taking out a couple of the windows simultaneously. After that, the thud had been Avalon hitting the floor as Gabriel yanked her out of the way of the incoming laser (and probably away from any further counter-attacks too). The humming sound was the small portal he had opened up on the floor where the laser struck, a portal that opened up directly in front of the laser turret itself. That was where the squealing tire-like sound had come from, as the turret literally lasered itself in half.

Finally, the tearing metal sound had been the shotguns being ripped from their housing by an invisible force, which then crumpled them all into little balls as if they were made of paper.

Yeah. In an unbelievably short time span, Gabriel had deflected three different shotgun blasts from three different angles, tossed Avalon out of the way, created a portal that made the laser turret destroy itself, and telekinetically tore the shotgun turrets out of their housing to destroy them. And it was nothing to him. Nothing at all. He had probably expended about as much effort to do all that as I spent on a single swing of my staff. And even that much was debatable.

Oh, and then there was the fact that Fahsteth wasn’t dead. And not only was he not dead, he hadn’t even fallen down. His bottom half had fallen, of course. But his top half hadn’t dropped.  Instead, while Gabriel had been protecting Avalon, a metal tentacle-like coil had already shot from the shark-man’s  innards, catching itself against the ground to support the figure while a plate of some kind extended to cover the rest of his exposed wound so he wouldn’t bleed out.

“S’kelstva!” Fahsteth bellowed a word that was clearly a curse of some kind. Probably an insult. As he spoke, a second metal tentacle extended itself from the plate covering his exposed lower torso, hitting the floor to steady him. “Think I’m that easy to kill?! Wouldn’t’ve lasted this long if some little kiver could take me out like that.” Despite his words, he still looked angry. Even if Avalon’s attack hadn’t killed him, it had hurt the bastard. And it had forced him to reveal that he was a… what, a cyborg? I still didn’t know what the hell that was all about.

Avalon, meanwhile, didn’t seem to care what the guy was. She just wanted him dead, regardless. And she was already back on her feet and moving that way, her expression hard.

Maybe she could have beaten him, considering the damage she’d already done. We’d never know, because the one figure everyone had stopped paying attention to during all that suddenly made himself known again. The purple-skinned, red-haired teleporter abruptly appeared directly behind Fahsteth. Grabbing onto the shark-man (or the top half of him anyway), he blurted something that sounded almost like an apology at us. Then he, and the shark-man, vanished from sight with an audible pop of energy that set my hair standing on end once more.

“No!” Avalon was there, right where Fahsteth had been. Her foot kicked the ground where his metal… tentacle… thing had been holding him up even as the blade of her gauntlet cut through the nearby wall. She didn’t say anything else, though I see the litany of curses behind her eyes as she whirled back, looking at us with an expression that showed her frustration. That in itself, the fact that her emotions were that plainly visible, gave me some idea of how upset she was.

Shoving my staff into its slot at my belt, I moved that way. I didn’t exactly run to her because… well, Avalon. But I did go right up to the girl, biting my lip. “Are… you okay, Valley?”

Her mouth opened, and it looked like she was about to reflexively snap something. But she stopped herself, hesitating slightly before taking a visible breath “I’m fine,” she stated flatly, repeating it. “I’m fine. But he–he should be–I had him right–he was–what the hell?”

It was Gabriel who spoke up. “Fahsteth is dangerous all on his own. But he’s much more dangerous because of the people he’s worked for. He doesn’t just take money for jobs, he takes enhancements, things that make him stronger or better. Unique weapons in some cases, or special magic, or, well… you saw the result of one of his jobs. Cybernetic enhancements that keep him alive long enough for his regeneration to kick in. I’m pretty sure he’s lost more body parts than the entire Star Wars saga put together by this point. Took a couple off him myself.”

Avalon’s voice was hard, her emotions clearly getting to her. “So he’s going to survive that.”

“Unfortunately,” Gabriel confirmed with a slight nod. “Which means you need to be careful. Because now he’ll know not to underestimate you. And you’ve hurt him, which he tends to take a bit personally.” Gaze softening, he added, “The point is, be careful out there. He’ll be back.”

“Next time I’ll finish the job,” the other girl promised, only belatedly blushing a little from getting the direct attention and focus of her childhood hero. She glanced away, looking back to the floor.

Biting my lip, I stepped over to examine the remains of one of the shotgun-turrets that had been ripped out of the wall and crushed. I didn’t know anything about what I was looking at, of course. But it gave me something to do other than grabbing onto Avalon, a display I knew she wouldn’t appreciate right then. Instead, I picked up the metal remains before looking back at Gabriel. “I guess he had these things set to interfere if he was attacked? But why didn’t they shoot at me?”

“You mean when you came in the room?” Gabriel shrugged. “My guess is that he had them set to react to direct aggression or an attack against him. Did you actually hit him directly?”

I thought about it before shaking my head. “I blasted that purple guy away from him… then Fahsteth came after me. I dove away from him… and held the purple guy hostage.”

“That could be it,” the man mused. “Or he might have disabled them from targeting you because of what he said about Fossor’s claim. It doesn’t sound like he was willing to risk annoying the man. Either way, they only popped on when Avalon became a direct threat.”

“I’ll show him a ‘direct threat’,” the other girl muttered darkly, arms folded over her stomach.

Belatedly, I remembered the much more important subject, suddenly spinning back that way as my eyes widened. “Oh my God! The cure, the one for Tangle! Do we–do you still have–”

“Right here.” Avalon’s hand came up with the vial of blue liquid. “Funny how he just happened to have it on him, ready to go.” Frowning, she squinted at it. “I’d say it was fake, but that stone…”

“He couldn’t have lied with the stone in his hand,” Gabriel confirmed. “Which means that really is a cure for what he did to your teacher.”

“Right, and for the record,” I informed the man, “that truth stone is probably my second favorite rock in the world right now.” Magic truth-revealing powers were great and useful, but they’d never beat Herbie.

Smiling faintly, Gabriel continued. “My guess is that he had it ready to go for a situation like the one he was just in, a bargaining chip to get himself out of trouble if need be. He’s a survivor.”

Avalon muttered something about not surviving the next time before looking back to me. “We’ve got more than the cure. We also know she’s innocent. And so was–” Stopping her face fell a bit.

“… Torv,” I finished for her, flinching. “Valley, I’m so sorry about your friend. I’m sorry you–”

“They’ll pay for it,” she interrupted, voice hard. “They’ll all pay for it. Every last one of them.”  

Straightening, I swallowed before murmuring, “At least we know a lot more than we did before all this.” Looking over to the other girl, I went on. “Not just that Torv and Tangle were innocent, but we also know why the Seosten want into that vault so bad. A spell to make every Heretic immune to them? That’d screw up their entire… everything. It’d completely fuck them over.”

“We also know the names of the other three Seosten besides Manakel,” she pointed out. “Charmeine, Paschar, and Lies. Charmeine must be the one that you saw at the beach.”

I nodded then. “Sounds right. Four of them. It could be worse. But then, I guess they can still do plenty of damage even with only a couple at each school, when we don’t know who they are.”

“And there are definitely more of them around,” Gabriel pointed out mildly. “These four will just be the ones involved in this particular mission. They’ll be the ones that are connected to each other, so if you attack one of them before you know where and who the other three are…”

“The others will know about it,” I finished, grimacing. “We either have to get all of them at once, or be prepared for some kind of retaliation if we can only get one of them. But if we can get that collar off of Pace, we’ll know–wait, wait a second.” I paused, frowning to myself thoughtfully.

Avalon looked at me then, squinting a little as I continued to remain silent. “What is it?”

Slowly, I looked up again. “The choker that Pace is using, we already know it can identify Seosten. What do you think the odds are of them allowing something like that to be used by someone that isn’t already under their control? Even if they were really allies. And as… uhh, let’s call it unstable as Pace has been, does she really seem like the kind of person the Seosten would leave with something that could identify them that easily? Hell, when they found out that we were trying to set up a meeting with one of their allies, they went straight to trying to kill him, a guy they’d been working with for like… at least twenty years, off and on. Knowing all that, do you really think they’d let Pace have that choker if she wasn’t already–”

“Already possessed,” Avalon finished for me, lifting her head with a thoughtful look. “I suppose that would make sense. But why does she act like–uh, why doesn’t she blend in more?”

“Has she always been erratic?” I asked then. “Or is this new behavior?”

The other girl shrugged helplessly. “She was older than me and not in my tribe, so I didn’t really know her until all this started happening. Torv mentioned her a couple times. I think he had a crush. That was before…” She hesitated, face falling a bit as her shoulders slumped. “Before.”

Flinching, I reached out to put a hand on her arm. “They’ll pay for what they did, what they’ve been doing.  I promise. They’re already panicking because of what we know. We’ll get there.”

Taking a breath and letting it out, I added, “The point is, Pace is probably one of the possessed people. It just makes too much sense for her not to be. That’s the only reason they’d let her keep something that could identify them. Plus, you know, they went to all the trouble of stealing it out of Litonya’s vault. The only reason I could see for doing that would be to let–hold on…”

Gabriel raised an eyebrow, looking at me curiously. “Something just occurred to you?”

I nodded. “If the Seosten went through all the trouble of stealing something like that out of the vault just to make sure the Committee didn’t have it, that would be one thing. But they stole it specifically for Pace to use. Why? I was thinking that they gave it to her so that she could keep being a host body for them after she was turned into a werewolf. But that only makes sense if-”

Avalon interrupted once more. “If the Seosten that’s possessing her can’t let her go, because she’s the one that’s crippled, Lies. The one that Fahsteth said couldn’t stop possessing someone until they died. But she’s also a werewolf, so they stole the choker because it was the easiest way to keep their host without killing her and let Lies continue to be in on things. Plus, having Pace right there with Trice and Doxer must’ve made it a lot  easier to manipulate them. Only… now we have Trice, and Doxer’s dead. So what good is the Pace body to them?”

My head shook. “I’m not sure. We’re probably missing something. Either way, I think all that fits. Pace must be possessed, and she’s probably possessed by the one that can’t let her go. But we still don’t know who any of the others are yet. And–” Abruptly, I coughed. “Wait, wait, wait. Shiori and Seth. We should really check on Shiori and Seth.”

“They’re fine,” Gabriel informed me. “Already finished dealing with the Alters that were brought over by the teleport-misfire and are waiting for us in the parking lot, if you’re ready to join them.”

I nodded, half-expecting the legendary Heretic to teleport us straight to the lot or something. Instead, he simply turned and walked to the circular hole that had been made in the metal wall. A flick of his hand literally erased enough of the metal to leave a doorway-shaped hole in it, which he moved through while continuing out to walk to the stairs. Which I really should’ve seen coming, considering everything I’d witnessed already.

Before following after the man, I reached out to catch Avalon’s hand, squeezing it gently. “I’m sorry you didn’t get to kill the bastard yet,” I murmured while watching her expression.

She bit her lip, hesitating a little before looking at me. “You’re not upset that I went after him even though we promised not to hurt him? It wasn’t  very… heroic. I just wanted him dead.”

Swallowing, I shook my head. “Trust me, Valley, I get it. I do. If I had a chance to take a free swing at Fossor, I… I’d probably do the same thing. And it’s not like you could’ve warned us ahead of time. You took the shot you had right in front of you. Now he’s pissed off, but… but we’ll deal with that, okay? All of us. We still got a lot out of him. We’ve just gotta use it right.”

“Use it right…” Avalon echoed my words before giving a slight nod. “Yeah, we will.” Her gaze went back to me then. “Now let’s go check up on your other girlfriend.”

“Wha–that’s not–I didn’t–I mean she–that–” My face was pink, which only got worse as I saw the smirk on her face. “You did that on purpose.”

“What, made you blush just to make myself feel better because of how cute it makes you look?” Valley breezily replied before brushing it off with a calculated flick of her hair. “Nah.”

She started out then, forcing me to sputter a few more times before I hurried to catch up.

******

“Wait, so we can just wake up Tangle?” Shiori asked a few minutes later, once we had joined her and Seth. “You think she’ll know who the other Seosten is–oh. Right, even if she does remember, he’s probably switched bodies by now.”

“And that’s a big ‘if’,” I replied. “Considering their love of memory spells, I wouldn’t count on it. But still, she might remember something we can use. And we do know that whoever Manakel’s been possessing, it’s an adult at Crossroads. That’s something.”

“What about that Grandfather guy?” Shiori asked. “The one that taught Bosch’s daughter how to make the immunity spell to begin with. Who is he? Where’d he come from? Where is he now? How does he know how to do all that? Is he a rogue Seosten like Vanessa and Tristan’s mom?”

Avalon shrugged. “We don’t know the answers to any of those questions. That’s all Fahsteth told us. She called him Grandfather and he was the one who helped her make her family immune to Seosten possession. That’s it, that’s all we know about him.”

“For now,” I added. “Maybe he’ll come up again. But the point is, we can wake up Tangle. We… should talk to Gaia about it, find out the best way to do it… you know, secretly. Because if the Seosten think that we can wake up Tangle and talk to her, they’ll kill her. We have to do it the right way.”

Seth cleared his throat. “Right, if Nancy, Bess, and George are all gonna keep kicking at the tires of this case, I’m gonna take off. Got my own stuff to do. Just got the entire series of both The Munsters and The Addams Family on DVD and I’m gonna alternate off every episode just to decide once and for all which one’s better. So, like I said, you got your stuff, I got mine.”

“I don’t have the rest of the money on me,” I informed him. “Gaia’ll have to get the forty grand to you.”

“I’m sure she’s good for it,” he replied lazily, spinning on a heel. “Catch you later, Zipper and friends.” The vampire strode off then, humming the theme song from The Addams Family without an apparent care in the world.

Shaking that off after a second, I coughed. “Okay, well… besides waking up Tangle, I think we know what we’re doing. First we get that choker, we use it to find out who they’re possessing and kick them out, then when we’re sure there’s no other problems, we’ll get into that vault.”

Shiori hesitantly spoke up then. “Do you think we should go for the vault straight off? I mean, if there’s really a way to stop the Seosten from possessing Heretics in there…”

Before I could respond, Avalon shook her head. “Not until we have a way to identify the ones that we’re already dealing with. We have to make sure everyone we take near the vault, everyone who has anything to do with opening it, are clear. And if we go there, the Committee’s gonna know about it. Which means we’ll only get one shot. If we open it up and the Seosten find out too soon… they’ll be there in force, probably Committee-level force.”

I nodded .”She’s right. We get the small-scale stuff, find the choker and use it and the anti-possession spell to get the spy out of our friends. Once it’s clear, then we’ll worry about the vault.”

“It sounds like you have a plan,” Gabriel put in then. I had a feeling that he’d been deliberately staying out of the conversation as much as possible to let us handle it. “I’ll keep teaching you the spell until it’s time to use it, but you should also practice on your own. Just make sure none of the others see you doing it. They’ll definitely recognize the spell for what it is.”

“We’ll be careful,” I promised, before my head fell back. “I guess that means we’re done here. Which means we’ve gotta get back before those Committee representatives tear the whole school apart looking for me.”

Yeah, I was going to have to talk to those guys and pretend to be surprised and terrified about my dad disappearing. I was going to have to sell it to them until they were satisfied. And after that, I had to talk to Dad himself and find out just what the hell had actually happened, how he had found out everything. I had… well, a lot of stuff to talk to him about.

Staying up all night, learning a spell from a literal living legend, fighting our way up to have a confrontation with an ancient mercenary shark-man, being interrogated by some investigators from the Committee, and then talking to my dad about all the secrets I’d been keeping all year? One thing was for sure…

If I hadn’t inherited the stamina boost from that Amarok, I would’ve died of exhaustion weeks ago.

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Mini-Interlude 30 – Seth and Shiori

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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